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 of course I don’t get depressed. However I may become:
prone to bouts of staring introspection
unable to get up in the morning
a convert to some enthusiastic religion or other
so I have had to give the thing some thought. My partner 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.
In the light of this, I have decided to write a blog.
Why a blog?
I enjoy writing, and a blog may help the time pass more quickly until I can give everything up without embarrassment, and begin quietly waiting for my final ailment.
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. 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 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…
Like me, you might like nothing better than to come across this news story in the real world, but unfortunately it is what Trump strategist Kellyanne Conway would probably call an alternative fact. Instead you might be interested to read the following, about the Banksy show which is on in Lisbon.
Banksy, genius or vandal? (Discuss)
This (without the Discuss) is what posters around Lisbon have been asking eagerly over the last couple of months, advertising the exhibition by the same name which is on at the Museu da Cordoaria . Happily the curators make no attempt to address this fatuous line of enquiry, or any other, but in nodding towards the idea of vandalism, the show raises one or two interesting questions.
In Portugal there is an awful lot of stuff spray-painted on public walls, from basic, dogged, repetitive tagging, to elaborate ADHD-type word-doodles, to the sort of villainous street ‘art’ commonly sponsored by local councils. We have a desperate example of the latter in Carcavelos, down by the market, which you might recognise as a type if I describe it. It depicts, among other hackneyed images straight from the psychedelic era, a sort of Native American sky-maiden girl (high cheek-bones, hippy-chick flowers in her hair), smiling gently and blowing something or other off the palm of her hand (perhaps the universe), flanked by a sort of Pacific-Island-looking girl (high cheek-bones, hippy-chick flowers in her hair), looking soulfully upwards at a convoluted tangle of bulbous, shiny-looking letters, so overwrought as to be indecipherable, and beyond those the huge blue face of a mermaidy sort of girl, with sparkling, anime-style eyes and tentacle-like hair (with no flowers in it). Beyond her a bloodlessly amputated but not very well-painted hand bears a bright blue dove with a keyhole in its breast (I’m not making this up), and there is also a herring-gull and a chimp with a shiny transistor radio (graffiteurs can’t get enough of shininess, once they have learnt to do it). And so on and so forth. You know the sort of stuff, it’s what is produced whenever public officials give money, support and carte blanche to skilled young spray-painters with plenty of time and no artistic sensibility.
The work exhibited in the Cordoaria’s Banksy show is nothing like that, and the reason for that, so goes the legend, is precisely because Banksy wasn’t given plenty of time. At the age of eighteen (the story goes), he was fed up with being interrupted and chased by the police, and one day was hiding from them under a dustman’s lorry when the stencils on it gave him the idea of using them in his own work, because stencils would allow him to take his time producing images, but work fast when applying them clandestinely. You are welcome to believe this tale if you like (it’s suspiciously like the sort of road-to-Damascus incident loyally peddled in revolutionary hagiographies) (and anyway why did Bristol dust-vans have stencils on their underside?) but it doesn’t matter either way. The result of his switching to stencilling has been the instantly recognisable global brand which is Banksy’s work as we all now know it: arty, clever, restrained in its use of detail and colour, visually witty, stylish, self-assured .
The catch is that the work gains so much of its power from the visual surprise of seeing these incongruously clean, classy images in their original context – in dirty streets, on warehouses, incorporating the door-steps and windowsills of terraced houses. So anybody curating a Banksy show seems to have a bit of a context issue. Banksy’s project is coherent, the thinking goes, precisely because it is clandestine: by being placed illegally in public places, the work is not only visually striking, but expresses its anti-establishment position through a non-establishment practice. Take the spray-painted lumps of brick and concrete out of this setting and stick them in a museum, and the images become just more artistic product to be consumed approvingly by the Artworld establishment. So any Banksy show misses the point a bit. Perhaps not many people are all that bothered about this, or what curators can do about it, but for the record what the Cordoaria ones have done is dim the lights, show a lot of videos and photos of the work in situ, fill the rest of the wall-space with screen-prints and a selection of Banksy’s epigrammatic sayings (he can be a bit of a smart-arse), and put on some rap-music. This worked well enough for me.
There has also been some fretting about what right people have to exhibit Banksy’s stuff without his authorisation (this show is no more authorised than the Brussels one last year or the Melbourne one in 2016.) But never fear. Writing on his website, Banksy says: “Members of the public should be aware there has been a recent spate of Banksy exhibitions, none of which are consensual. They’ve been organised entirely without the artist’s knowledge or involvement. Please treat them accordingly.” He then very likeably adds “Not sure I’m the best person to complain about people putting up pictures without getting permission.” Exactly, Banksy.
The show is at the Museu da Cordoaria until October 27th.
Others have privately mourned the missed opportunity for a
briskly carried out assassination a lá
Sadat (that may have only been me), or have marvelled at how jaw-droppingly vulgar
and grotesque the whole vanity project was. However, what was truly and
genuinely bizarre was Trump’s delivery of his speech. Have a listen to this
excerpt, which also contains the ‘took-over-the-airports’ and ‘rammed-the-ramparts’
I have tried to find the words to describe the creepy, would-be sonorous, oleaginous falseness of Trump’s tone here, but they elude me. I ask myself what other politician would be allowed by his minders to sound like this, but perhaps they can’t do anything with him. It all adds to the enduring Trump enigma: it isn’t hard to understand how so many Americans lap up his jingoism and xenophobia, his sexism, racism, homophobia and philistinism, because after all they feel these things too, and they admire someone who doesn’t give a monkeys and just says them. The mystery is how such people fail to see how personally ridiculous he is, what an ass he makes of himself and of America.
Crumbs! I doubt one person in ten thousand had heard of cuddly, balding diplomatic fixer Kim Darroch until yesterday, but overnight he has ushered in the Post-Lies Era with the mischievous publication of his insightful views on the Trump gang. Given that Darroch had no idea that his memos would be made public by some Brexiteer mandarin (he is a dyed-in-the-wool Europhile who it seems somebody wanted rid of) they are notable for their moderation, though one could scarcely expect inept, insecure and incompetent Donald to see it that way. The language is dry, descriptive, restrained, rueful: ‘we don’t really believe this Administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction riven; less diplomatically clumsy and inept,’ mourns one letter, culpable perhaps for its awkward use of the semi-colon, but surely for nothing else. Trump is much more fun, and has taken to the twittersphere like a wounded and barely literate teenager, calling ‘the wacky Ambassador that the U.K. foisted upon the United States’ a ‘very stupid guy’. Warming to his theme, the President sulks that ‘we’re not big fans of that man, and I can say things about him but I won’t bother’, and takes the opportunity for a side-swipe at poor old Teresa May while he is at it. I had completely forgotten she is still Prime Minister.
Her office, meanwhile, has issued a
statement supporting Sir Kim but citing the United Kingdom’s
“special and enduring relationship” with the United States. Peter Spiegel, the US
Managing Editor of the Financial Times, observed drily this morning that
The Special Relationship is a term more often used by British people than Americans. In
fact, I doubt that most Americans had any idea that it existed. It reminds me
in this way of the enduring football rivalry which English journalists and commentators
detect between England and Germany. I think it was a puzzled Lothar Matthaus
who once suggested politely that, insofar as Germany had any particular rival
at all, it might be Brazil, or Argentina, but no, not really England.
But where was I? Oh yes, the aptly-surnamed Boris Johnson,
who struck a new nadir on TV last night, laying unchallenged claim to the moral
low ground on the Kim Darroch story. Jeremy “Mike” Hunt could scarcely believe
his luck, as Johnson writhed and prevaricated and publicly did everything he
could to avoid backing Darroch in the face of Trump’s petulant bluster. Mike
kept it simple, said the obvious right thing and looked good by comparison. But
the cowardly Johnson will go on leading a charmed life as the UK’s next Prime
Minister, delivering British industry and services into the hands of American
As perhaps expected, Kim Darroch has jumped before he was pushed, giving Boris the opportunity to disgrace himself further as he embarrassedly vows this and insists on that. It calls to mind the image in Samuel Johnson’s delicious letter to Lord Chesterfield, who belatedly had a good word to say about Johnson’s dictionary, having declined to be his patron in the writing of it:
‘Is not a patron my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it.’
Meanwhile, Sir Kim is Britain’s newest National Treasure, and the world is surely his oyster. Before the year is out, he will be on I’m a Celebrity Get me Out of Here.
Thursday 20th June. So, farewell for now to yelping, likeable public-school misfit Rory Stewart, with his skinny legs, wizened pixy face and tie taken off like somebody finally unwinding at a wedding. Following the rejection of the well-scrubbed but perhaps not terribly bright Dominic Raab (perceptively dubbed The Turnip in Brussels), our Rory was hooked from the Leadership Debate by Tory MPs last Wednesday, to be followed a day later by the permanently queasy-looking nonentity Sajid Javid and the deeply unappetising coke-sniffer Michael Gove, whose display of pop-eyed, weak-chinned, wet-lipped boasting was insufficient to dislodge the other one, whose name for the moment escapes me, as favourite to be run over and left writhing in Boris Johnson’s dust when the Tory faithful vote in July.
I say farewell for now because if the Brexit mess has revealed a rising young star it is surely our Rory, who has captured the hearts of liberals and centre-lefties right across Britain (all right, southern England), mostly because he is clearly in the wrong party. Rory seems like the sort of decent, wryly humorous, well-mannered bloke you wouldn’t mind standing next to and having a chat with at the stand-around-pointlessly stage of a wedding, as you consume nasty wine and greasy finger food which you know will give you heartburn later in the evening. The other debaters would probably spend the entire time looking over your shoulder to check that nobody had walked into the room behind you who was more worth being seen with.
The exception would be Boris Johnson, of course. He would be looking over your shoulder to eye up women and keep a lookout for the next waiter with a full tray of drinks. Polly Toynbee was good on Johnson and his ‘rotten-to-the-core character’ the other day in the Guardian. If you missed it, here’s a rousing sample: ‘a man without qualities, devoid of public spirit or regard for anyone but himself, consumed by lifelong ambition, needy for acclaim and irritable when it’s denied, willing to swing dangerously in any direction to be loved, a man to shame the country as its figurehead.’ That does sound like Boris, you have to agree. The saintly Max Hastings weighed in a day or two later. ‘There is room for debate about whether he is a scoundrel or mere rogue,’ he mused, ‘but not much about his moral bankruptcy, rooted in a contempt for truth (…) I have a hunch that Johnson will come to regret securing the prize for which he has struggled so long, because the experience of the premiership will lay bare his absolute unfitness for it.’
The problem is, however, that Johnson doesn’t give a toss about what journalists say about him. Like a man holding onto a lifeline in a stormy sea, eyes tight shut, he knows that all he has to do to win the vote, no matter how much shit is directed at him, is to be clearly identified for loony Tories as the man who will ‘deliver’ a no-deal Brexit. This is a task which should be well within his capabilities, because it entails nothing more than sitting back and doing nothing at all (by all accounts hisforté).
Saturday 22nd June. But I digress. It’s perfectly clear why Johnson went into politics, and why he did so as a Tory, but I’ve never understood why anybody with a moral sense would do so, and it was queer to the point of dream-like last week to see Rory Stewart, exuding sincerity, intelligence, energy and social conscience, trying to charm the Tory faithful, the hard-core, deranged 150,000, by briskly dismissing the idea of a no-deal Brexit, uncompromisingly opposing tax-cuts for business and the well-off, promising massive government investment in the social services, and saying salaam alaikum to Abdullah from Bristol. It was only when he said that we needed to stop thinking about the immediate future and turn our thoughts to the next ten or fifteen years that the penny dropped: Stewart has known all along he wouldn’t get anywhere near the loony-Tory vote – what he was laying claim to in the debate, for the benefit of the TV audience, was the left-of-centre middle-ground, that large area of the political landscape that should by rights be permanently occupied by Labour, or if you ask the Liberal Democrats by them, and which is going to be up for grabs when Johnson’s hopefully short time in office leads to an election and the fundamental restructuring of British political alignments.
Doom-and-gloomers are already cheerfully predicting the fragmentation of the Conservative Party along the europhile and eurosceptic fault-line, while Labour looks like it may be weak and divided for the foreseeable future as it tries to work out what it wants, including if it wants to be led by a shifty-looking man who is systematically attacked by the popular press and sincerely disliked by far too many people for comfort. There is surely an opportunity there for someone, so why not Stewart? A couple of weeks ago Ken Clarke twinklingly identified the ‘Oooh, I do like that Boris Johnson’ factor in Johnson’s appeal, but perhaps the factor we will be hearing more about over the coming months will turn out to be the one that goes ‘Actually, I quite like that Rory Stewart. Did he really walk across Iran and Afghanistan?’
Well, you never know. Interesting, anyway.
don’t forget we’re Labour.
Blimey, just goes to show you never know. Johnson is pushing his luck here. Is he so catastrophically amateurish that he’s going to mess this up? Manhandling his girlfriend and refusing to answer questions about it? Lying to everyone about the make-up-and-be-friends photos? Capriciously inventing a mad, fictitious hobby out of the blue, and earnestly, visibly lying about it as his incredulous interlocutor tries not to giggle? This is a big wobble. His handlers must be gnashing their teeth. They strain every sinew to keep arrogant, ignorant, verbally incontinent Boris away from anything on TV where he might have to take part in a grown-up discussion, and he goes and does all this. But I still think sticking to the ‘no Deal’ undertaking, come what may, do or die, will win the day with the Tory faithful against the other one, whatsisname, the dull one. And if Johnson is afterwards found to have lied about no deal, well there we are.
Max Hastings, who may be moving to Argentina soon, is certainly consistent. Do you remember what he wrote when Johnson lost his nerve and backed out, after being the front-runner in the 2015 Tory leadership race? Probably not, because it was in the Daily Mail, but the headline was a gem: ‘If this charlatan and sexual adventurer had become Prime Minister, I’d have emigrated, says his former boss’. In the course of this energetic article, he mused: ‘I suppose that I have some personal interest in Johnson’s withdrawal from the leadership contest, because it will spare me from having to fulfil my 2012 pledge in these pages that I would catch a plane to Buenos Aires if this essentially brutal buffoon became prime minister.’ Better develop a taste for mate, Max.
Speaking of arrogance, incompetence and ignorance, have you noticed that Donald Trump has been doing his Buzz Lightyear face a lot recently? It involves jutting out his lower lip, narrowing his eyes and lowering his eyebrows moodily. He has been practising this expression in front of the mirror and believes it epitomises resolve and toughness .
Does anybody else find that watching the News currently feels like watching the backstory to ‘Years and Years’? If you missed this series on BBC, it is a sort of What-if, science-fiction-ish drama about what things in Europe and especially Britain might look like in ten years’ time, if things go badly wrong. It finished last week but it’s just started being broadcast on HBO, and is (just about) worth a look
Thursday June 27th I can’t keep up with this any more. After yesterday’s come-what-may, do-or-die stuff, Boris has now reassured us that there’s only a million-to-one chance of a No-Deal Brexit. Presumably he got this statistic from the same place he got his bus-making hobby. But anyway, to quote Max Hastings again: ‘Johnson (…) always wants to tell an audience what it wishes to hear. That applies whether with one person or a thousand. And if the following week they want to be told something different, that, too, will be genially provided.’
In my last post I referred to an artist called Anesh Kupoor. It has been pointed out to me that this person doesn’t exist, but the artist Anish Kupoor does. Putting two and two together, this must be the one I meant. Apolidgies to Anish, and thanks to Katie J.
‘Why can’t they just leave things alone?’
“The greatest happiness”, Genghis Khan once slurred into a bowl of fermented mare’s milk, “is to scatter your enemy and drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded and in tears, and to gather to your bosom his wives and daughters.”
Well, that was Genghis for you, and fair enough, but to be honest that sort of thing was never my cup of tea, and now that I’m retired I find another sort of contentment in the quiet routines of life, what George Eliot called those “good and sufficient ducts of habit, without which our nature easily turns to mud and ooze, and at any pressure yields nothing but a spurt or a puddle” (I am reading Daniel Deronda at the moment, where this eccentric metaphor appears).
Anyway, this morning, following one of these life-structuring, nature-stiffening habits, I set off at 9.30 with the dog, down to Carcavelos beach via the Quinta dos Ingleses. I do this a lot with her. She is a small black and white mongrel with bits of brown, getting on a bit, called Gucci (we took her on after the death of her previous owner, and that’s the name she came with.)
We are going to go across the little local park by the school, past
the Black Alsatians, and from there to the railway line and across the
The Black Alsatians are penned in a scruffy, overgrown back yard behind flimsy wire fencing. As we pass, they throw themselves at this in a paroxysm of rhythmic barking, eyes staring and teeth bared to the gums. They do this every time. Gucci is unfazed, because she is a sensible dog and they are behind a fence, but I have jumped half out of my skin as usual, and am prickling with unwanted adrenalin and strong dislike. Dogs like this aren’t too bad when they are barking their stupid heads off behind high gates and fences (the Portuguese believe in general that guard-dogs, unlike children, should be heard and not seen) but it’s horrible to have them in your face. I would like to vaporise them.
Gucci was attacked recently by a big young dog. I wasn’t there, but apparently he got over-excited and boisterous and things got out of hand. That’s something you hear quite a lot when you have a small dog, ‘Oh but he’s only playing’. Anyway, she got a bad scare, a couple of small cuts, and some painful bruising on her neck (it had never occurred to me that dogs get bruises). Also the vet had to remove the damaged dew-claw on her right forepaw.
I watch her adoringly now as she trots busily up the tarmac ramp
ahead of me, tail hoisted jauntily. ‘There’s no love like a dog’s love’, some
woman said on TV the other night, but surely that’s nonsense. If Gucci is
anything to go by, dogs are mostly partial to:
sniffing things thoroughly
having their ears fondled
going for walks (see 1)
unconditional love is mostly on the side of the humans. That’s why dogs do us good,
because we love them, not because they love us. ‘Until one has loved an animal’, Anatole France said,
‘a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.’
We reach the top of the ramp. The broad footbridge is very high above the railway line, and gives a fine view over leafy Carcavelos and away to the distant Serra de Sintra. It’s a fine sunny morning, very quiet, and the rapid ticking of the dog’s paws is loud as we cross over. My own steps chime faintly as we descend the iron stairs on the other side, Gucci’s small rump bobbing rhythmically as she goes down two legs at a time.
From here it’s a
short stroll to the Quinta dos Ingleses,
which will take us all the way down to the beach.
The quinta is an old country estate, nowadays run pleasantly wild, to which the public have de facto right of access. The English connection began in the nineteenth century, when the estate and manor-house were bought by Cable & Wireless Co. The manor-house, in the western half of the estate, now houses a school for the children of wealthy Portuguese, in its own leafy grounds and bit of pine-wood. Adjacent to this is the scruffy little site of our local football club, GS Carcavelos. To the south and south-west, there is sandy open heathland, with the odd pine-tree or acacia, sloping down to a big pot-holed car-park for beach-goers, and beyond that the Avenida Marginal and the beach. Northward on the western side it’s more thickly-wooded, and bounded by a high wall. You see rabbits here, and the occasional kestrel. But we are heading down the eastward side of the estate and will take the other way on the walk home.
This north-eastern corner of the quinta seems unpromising at first, being near the junction of two busy roads. However, the main one soon slants away to the south-east, on its way to the marginal, so that as we head south the noise of traffic quickly fades to a soft faraway roar like distant surf. After thirty seconds, it’s quiet enough for me to hear the dog sneezing and swishing in the grass, and the thin repetitive whistling of what could be meadow-pipits, unless they have all gone back to northern Europe by now.
We are following a rutted track, with meadow-grasses grown high on either side. Mixed in with the grasses are the flowers of Portuguese springtime: rose mallow, camomile, ball mustard, mauve-flowered thistles, purple and pink viper’s bugloss. Down the middle of the track are patches of little blue pimpernels. Our course is converging with that of the Ribeira de Sassoeiros to the east, its bramble-shrouded bed hidden behind the tall bamboo which is everywhere in this little valley. Beyond the stream the ground rises steeply, clothed in mixed woodland, mostly pines, above dense brambly undergrowth, wild montbretia, rough grass. The further south we go, the further back this wood stretches, shot with shafts of morning sunlight.
Beyond the meadow stretching to the right there are more stands of bamboo, and beyond them well-developed eucalyptuses and pines, half concealing the little football ground with its tiny, rickety stand. A buzzard can sometimes be seen roosting in the tallest of the pines.
I realise I have lost the dog. I whistle a few times, and after a while she emerges from the grass a long way back up the track, and begins trotting towards me. She will catch up in her own time.
The bamboo closes in on either side for a time, and the path narrows to a single file, so that the backs of my hands are knocked lightly by encroaching grasses as I walk. I have been hearing the occasional peep of a whistle and the shrill shouts of pre-adolescent boys for a while. Now, a clearing on the right suddenly reveals the sports fields of the school, green and orderly behind a wire fence. There are three big maritime pines in the clearing, where I have in the past observed chaffinches, great-tits and blue-tits. No luck today.
A little later the path swings to the left and dips to ford the dry, mud-caked stream-bed, continuing southwards on its other side. It’s becoming a hot morning now, the warmth drawing out the sweet dusty fragrance of the pine-woods along whose edge we are now walking, but when I enter the pool of shade cast by one of the big eucalyptuses the air is suddenly cool again, and faintly astringent.
The place is not ornamental or pretty in a conventional sense: the basic ingredients are prosaic – pine-woods, stands of bamboo, stringy-bark eucalyptus, a dry crusted stream-bed running beneath a roof of brambles. The ground is strewn with fallen leaves, long panels of bark, twigs. A short exploration of any side-path may end you up in a bramble- encircled clearing used as an emergency toilet. But it is nonetheless deeply satisfying that a short stroll can take you to such a quiet, abandoned place. The traffic noise has gone, there are bird-calls, there are no buildings in sight, and we seem to be miles from anywhere.
At the south-eastern corner of the school grounds, there are three ways to continue seawards. One is through the main woods on the rising ground to the south-east, following one of a network of paved tracks, half-covered by fallen pine-needles, which in a few minutes bring you out on the pot-holed, eroded car-park. Due south, there used to be a way between the clumps of bamboo along the shallow valley, but nowadays it is very overgrown and marshy-looking. These days I always head right, re-crossing the stream in its deep culvert and following the seaward boundary of the school gently upwards through the shade of younger pine-woods, carpeted with wild freesia in early spring. At the top of this incline is open ground, a glorious 150-degree view of the ocean, and a five-minute stroll down to a tunnel under the marginal which leads to the promenade and the beach.
I would understand if even the keenest nature-lover were no longer with me, but there is a good reason for such a detailed and affectionate account, because this place, the last green space worth the name on the linha de Cascais, is scheduled to be destroyed in the near future and replaced by an immense urbanised estate of large residential blocks, with the blessing of the private school housed at the quinta’s heart. Needless to say, few locals will be able to afford to live in one of these blocks. The project, it is feared, will also have very negative effects on local wildlife, on the beach itself, on traffic, and on the quality of life in Carcavelos.
There is a movement of protest against this, called SOS Quinta dos Ingleses, but when you get to my age it’s hard to be optimistic about any challenge to big money. Anyway, if I have understood correctly, the group accepts the inevitability of the project, and is agitating mainly for an ‘urban park’ to be built alongside the residential blocks. Better than nothing, you will say, but it makes little difference to me. This place as it is seems to be doomed.
But there we are. Boo-hoo. This walk looks like one well-established habit I will soon have to do without. Expect my nature to turn to mud and ooze, and at any pressure yield nothing but a spurt or a puddle.
Readers who can still remember things will recall that in the two posts before my last one, I talked about online misogyny, the shameful toleration of domestic violence in Portugal, and the treatment of date-rape and wife-murder in popular culture. It will further be recalled that in these posts I took a position intended to be supportive of women, and critical of the sort of coprocephalic[i] misogyny encountered, in particular, on the web.
In this way, it seems I may have left myself in danger of being identified as a Male Feminist. I am not sure how I feel about this. I have found out that there’s nothing much worse than a Male Feminist.
A site called returnofkings.com has been especially influential in setting me straight about these ‘turn-coat gender traitors, [who] publicly self-castrate, lying to themselves and others about their own sexual imperatives’. The site’s ‘columnist-at-large’ Tuthmosis Sonofra identifies a male feminist as someone who ‘engages in the typically feminist mental acrobatics that—when it’s all said and done—have turned night into day, made up into down, and rendered men into women.’ Such a person has ‘a slovenly appearance, a false veneer of intellectualism and academic grounding, and a vegan-style beard’. Worst of all, he has ‘a lispy, effete gay voice, and does condescending, snarky girl-tone and eye-rolling’.
I am surprised that the writer has missed the opportunity to dub such a person a hag-fag, and do so now.
I have not yet caught myself doing any of the things he mentions, but will be on my guard from now on.
More fun with inversions
If you liked hag-fag (and even if you didn’t), what do you get if you invert the initial ‘h’ and the ‘t’ in hash-tag? There, isn’t that amusing? It calls to mind what a Portuguese male acquaintance of Veronica’s said the other day: ‘mulher sem bigode é como um ovo sem sal’ (my translation: a woman without a moustache is like an egg without salt). I’m not sure if this was an expression of personal taste or the repetition of a Portuguese saying, but I hope it’s the latter. The Portuguese sense of humour is perhaps an acquired taste, but it has its moments.
I can’t think of any more thigh-slappingly humorous inversions. Contributions gratefully received, good ones reproduced with acknowledgement.
Call me paranoid…
‘Returnofkings?’ I hear you thinking, ‘Tuthmosis Sonofra?’ What sort of weird little hobbity spaced-out person runs this site, and why am I taking it seriously enough to even mention it? Isn’t it a bit like the Urban Dictionary, mostly done as a kind of joke anyway, which only someone as out-of-touch as me would keep trying to get a cheap laugh out of?
Well, OK, maybe, but I’m not so sure these wankers are harmless. Other articles published on returnofkings.com recently include ‘The myth of never hitting a woman’, ‘Seven ways modern women treat men like dogs’ and ‘Street harassment is a myth invented by socially-retarded white women’. These pieces are flanked by click-bait with titles like ‘Beautiful single chicks available’ and ‘Russian girls make the best girlfriends’, and they get plenty of comments (the street harassment one has 1,056). They are energetically argued, and without spelling or punctuation mistakes, but otherwise they seem to have been written by much the same sort of male who contributes to the Urban Dictionary – where, on male feminists for example, we find a contributor calling himself Chad McIroncock (tee-hee), but also one who goes by the not-so-amusing sobriquet niggarkilla 123 (probably not the sort of person Samuel Johnson had in mind when he defined a lexicographer as a harmless drudge.)
The experience of exploring sites like these is like lifting a rock and seeing what’s crawling around underneath. They are mostly ignorant and nasty, even the clever ones are bitterly resentful, and they seem to speak for a large number of obnoxious males, who in the US are probably armed to the teeth. This brings us back to domestic violence, of course (the Number One cause of which, according to the UD, is ‘women just wont [sic ] listen’), but why should it stop at the front door? What happens when a not-terribly-well-adjusted American male, armed with an automatic rifle and a furious sense of grievance, has had enough? Well, in the sixteen months from 1st October 2017 to 15th February 2019, there were twenty mass shootings in the US, killing one hundred and eighty-eight people and wounding six hundred and sixty-six (figures courtesy of Mother Jones magazine). It is rare for these killings to be completely random. Who would really be surprised if the next one, or the next-but-one, or the one after that, had a gathering of feminists as its target?
However, what about Joana Vasconcelos?
Your average male supremacist loony would probably have very little time for the gorgeous Joana Vasconcelos retrospective show, on till June 24th at the Serralves Foundation in Porto. We went to this with my brother and sister-in-law last month, and if you are in Portugal between now and then, I recommend you do the same (or you can go with somebody else if you prefer).
And of course you can see a feminist purpose in many of her sculptures and installations – ‘Burka’ and ‘Marilyn’ (the high-heeled-shoes-made-out-of-shiny-saucepans one) spring to mind straight away – but while such subversive readings are obviously available, they are mostly suggested with a light, allusive touch. I must say what I liked most about the Vasconcelos show was not its feminism but its femininity. That’s probably a no-go word these days, but if you go, have a look at big, tactile, colourful pieces like ‘Egeria’, ‘Finisterra’ or ‘Lilicoptére’, and see if you agree.
If you take the time to watch the Vasconcelos interview, you will probably feel as sorry as I am not to have seen the show at the Guggenheim, particularly the huge, gorgeous ‘Egeria’ drooping and prying and exploring all about the central atrium, but the Serralves museum and lovely garden are nice places to see the stuff (‘Marilyn’ looked fabulous on a well-mown lawn on a sunny Spring day), and the garden also has an uncompromising Richard Serra (great if you like huge rusty iron things) and Anesh Kapoor’s stunning sky mirror.
See you next time.
[i] I was congratulating myself on inventing this clever word all by myself when I found out that it has already been coined. There is even a facebook page called ‘coprocephalic’, which seems to be about a death-metal record label, as far as I can work out, or maybe a group, or perhaps a record.
This month, the Brexit Desk team have all hanged themselves or run away. This has left me short-staffed, but I feel something needs to be said, on this day of all days, when the thing has finally gone officially tits-up. It reminds me of the old Country Joe song about the Vietnam draft, ‘Feel like I’m fixin’ to die’, but Brexiteers will go on petulantly insisting that Britain is not crashing out of Europe, nor even tumbling out, and can we please avoid such sensationalist language. OK, are we storming out, perhaps, or striding out, or swanning out, leaving Europe feeling foolish in our wake ? A lot of people are certainly Freaking Out.
The piece below refers back to a happier time, a few weeks ago.
Saturday, February 23rd, 8.15am
Today I am in Lisbon for my Portuguese language test. This
is going to happen in the Universidade de Lisboa, pleasantly located just off
Campo Grande, down which my Uber is now taking me. I have allowed myself this
piece of self-indulgence (what’s one more, after all?) rather than have to
drive into Lisbon and park, or get up at 6.30 and do the trip in by train and
tube. I am perfectly sure I am going to pass this test, but I have been feeling
oddly nervous yesterday and today.
For a major urban thoroughfare, Campo Grande is very easy on the eye. You don’t notice that there are three lanes going south and three going north, because in between them is a large park, running the best part of a kilometre north-south, and two hundred yards wide at its broadest, with plenty of well-grown trees, lawns, a large tree-fringed boating lake, cafés, tennis courts and so on. It is all very attractive in the early-morning sunshine, with more lawns and trees separating the main avenue from the parallel exit road, down which we are now rolling comfortably, preparing to turn right. By now large blocky buildings of different shapes have started to appear on that side, beyond lawns, spindly trees and carparks. I am a fan of Cement Institutional, and there are one or two fine examples here as we turn right, especially the stunning Torre do Tombo. I get a good view of this as we drive past before stopping at the Faculdade de Letras, which overlooks a big grassed area, featureless as an Indian maidan.
I hop out and scurry up broad steps to the entrance, passing between tall rectangular columns supporting a deep, forty-foot-high porch. The front edge of this porch is an exact white square, as if a tall box has been laid on its longer side. You can see what the architect is getting at with the geometric simplicity of this, and the four brownish-pink columns running along the front. Even so, it’s a bit like an improvised cage for a giant guinea-pig.
Beyond the doors is a long high entrance hall, lined with more
square pillars. Something about it makes me think of 1984, or perhaps Russia,
or perhaps just the nineteen-forties. There is a knot of people gathered about
one of the pillars, which has a list of candidates and exam rooms to go to. I
find my name, and after a bit of wandering about corridors I find the room as
well. There are about twenty other people already there, sitting at desks
arranged in rows. They are mostly Middle-Eastern or Slavic in appearance. A limp,
mildly attractive middle-aged woman with hair rather too long for her age is
standing by the desk at the front of the room. She takes my name and I find my
I park my bag, get out my stuff and look round the room,
which like the rest of the building needs a coat of paint. I notice there is no
clock. I have never seen an exam room without one, so I put up my hand and ask
about this. We will be given a fifteen-minute warning before the end of the
exam, I am told, as if that solves the problem. OK, I say, smiling sunnily.
The first exam will be of an hour and a quarter, and will test reading comprehension and written expression. Unfortunately it cannot be started because a few candidates are not here yet. In less sympathetic contexts, the exam would start on time and late arrivers would simply have less time to do it, or would be disqualified. However this is Portugal, so we wait until every last person is in and sitting comfortably, whereupon the lone invigilator asks if everyone has all they need for the exam (we have all been told by email to bring a pen, a pencil and so on) and five or six candidates put up their hands to confess they have brought nothing to write with. As I shake my head to myself in righteous incredulity, the invigilator nods understandingly and asks if other candidates could oblige by lending what is necessary. In the end the exam starts thirteen minutes late. I know this because we are not asked to switch off our mobile phones, another generous concession I haven’t come across before.
For the reading comprehension test we have to read fifteen short texts supposed to be text-messages, each followed by multiple-choice questions. Following this we have to hand-write our own text-messages, based on simple imaginary situations. This is harder than you might think when you don’t want to make mistakes, and overall there is quite a lot to do in the time. However, candidates around me rise to the challenge with a heart-warming display of autonomy, two behind me colluding throughout in loud whispers, and the young man to my left showing well-developed research skills by continually consulting his mobile phone. The invigilator notices none of this, having some marking to catch up with. After a break, the short listening test is much the same, except that the texts are short scripted conversations recorded by not-very-good actors. The pace and carefully controlled language of these little dialogues makes them much easier to understand than the improvised, disorganised instructions delivered by the invigilator beforehand. Anybody who could follow these, it seems to me, has no further need of a listening test, but what do I know.
In the afternoon there will be interactive oral tests in the form of paired interviews, but in the meantime I have two or three hours to kill. I decide to walk back down towards Campo Grande. I have brought a bottle of water, a sandwich and a bit of fruit, but that now seems an even less appetising lunch than it did this morning when I threw it together. However I noticed a little on-campus café called ‘ 100 Montaditos’ when I arrived this morning, and I am keen to try this; I am a big fan of montaditos, which I have eaten in the north of Spain. If you don’t know what they are, they are sort of tapas but better, comprising little sections of white baguette-style bread mounted with exotic combinations of delicious ingredients, pinned down by toothpicks.
With hopes high, I step into the trendily fitted-up café, to find it smelly and full of chattering young people queuing for or consuming catering-quality mini-pizzas, nachos with little plastic pots of sauce, and cartons of those skinny cardboardy chips you get in shopping centres. So much for montaditos. I cross the footbridge to the park and, needing a pee, stop into a surprisingly-located McDonald’s, where the truly terrible stink and hubbub make the café seem refined by comparison. It occupies the entire ground floor of a large two-storey building, which judging by its concrete and glass construction is owned by the University. Perhaps the administration has concluded that anybody who doesn’t know about healthy eating by the time they go to college is beyond re-education, but even so it is slightly shocking to see so many educated young people tucking into such awful food, especially in Portugal, where the food generally isn’t bad.
Outside, the sun is warm. I find a bench, take off my jacket and consume
my packed lunch, then walk to a big tree I’ve had my eye on. I lay my jacket on
the grass beneath it and lie down with my hat covering my face. It is pleasant and
relaxing to hear the pock-pock of tennis rackets, the distant squawking of
indignant ducks on the boating-lake, snatches of conversation approaching and fading
as people walk past.
Without realising I have dropped off, I am abruptly woken by
the stout bellowing of a female child. She is leaning against the tree-trunk
with her eyes covered by her hands, counting slowly and very loudly down from
twenty while her friends find somewhere to hide, apparently two or three miles
away. When she has finished counting I wait for her to go away and look for
them, but she stays, and I realise it is that game where they have to sneak up
and touch the tree without being tagged. This leads to a lot of panting,
squealing, argumentative fun, which I have soon had enough of being this close
to. I get to my feet, gather my stuff and move away, grumbling mutinously.
There is still time to kill, which in preparation for my oral test I fill with sitting on a bench watching what the Portuguese nation get up to on a Saturday afternoon. Or rather, since we are in central Lisbon and it is the weekend, watching the activities of those lisboetas who can afford to live nearby. It reminds me of Regent’s Park in London when I went a couple of years ago, except that here there are residents and no obvious foreigners (any tourists will be a good way off, in the older part of the city) while in Regent’s Park there seemed to be residents and no English.
Post-lunch, it is a busy scene. Strolling families share the wide tarmac paths safely with joggers and the odd cyclist, who display none of the bad manners and sense of entitlement for which their London counterparts are increasingly resented. Nobody is pushed under a bus, at least.[i] Children scamper, grandparents beam indulgently, young couples saunter by hand-in-hand.[ii] It is very pleasant and civilised, as Portugal mostly is.
My oral test is in the form of a conversation with another candidate, loosely prompted and structured by an interlocutor. it is recorded for later assessment. My partner in this is a Cuban woman in early middle-age who is living in the Algarve. We have a nice chat, in which the interlocutor sometimes joins. Asked what makes me want to get a Portuguese passport I own up about Brexit, but also am at pains to say how much I like Portugal. When this begs the obvious next question, I readily cite the weather and the wine, and after an artful pause for the interlocutor’s benefit, add ‘Oh, and the people, of course’. ‘Of course,’ he laughs. ‘But really?’, and casting my mind back to the garden this afternoon, I am able to say ‘Yes, I think I do’.
Looking at this unbelievable incident again, could anything look more like an attempted murder, à la House of Cards? It’s enough to make you wonder if the woman was an ex-spy and the jogger a Russian intelligence officer, who had come to Putney to see its world-famous bridge. Before you scoff at the notion, consider this: at the time, the hero of the piece was justly the bus-driver, whose astonishingly quick reflexes saved the woman’s head from being crushed, but look again and you will note the role also played by the woman’s own reflexes, presence of mind and steely abdominal muscles – just the sort of attributes you would expect in a secret agent.
[ii] … except in cases where the boy has the girl in a Lusitanian Headlock. This is a show of affection, or hold, in which the boy passes his arm right over the girl’s shoulders, squeezing her to him tightly so that his upper arm is at the back of her neck, his arm bent downwards at the elbow on the opposite side. Thus pinioned, the girl is introduced to the traditional model for Portuguese marriage. An alternative to this is the Belt-and-braces Straight-arm Cross-over, which I saw the other day for the first time. In this grip, the couple lovingly intertwine fingers in the normal way, with their arms straight down and touching, but the young male strengthens his hold by reaching across with his opposite hand and grasping the inside of the girl’s elbow. Anybody who would enjoy a musical exploration of other wrestling holds should not miss ‘The Crusher’ by the Cramps: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5gRD549UAo
The sun is up now, a pale molten disc behind the bare branches of the trees across the car park. I am third in the queue at the door of the prefab which houses the Carcavelos health centre. After me there are three more well-wrapped-up figures. It hasn’t been frozen, wintry weather by northern European standards, but it’s chilly enough this early morning, and nobody wants to catch a cold, on top of whatever else has brought them to the centre. None of us is under sixty, I think.
We are all waiting for the health centre to open, at eight o’clock, so that we can book appointments with our respective médicos de familia. You can do this by phone if you’re very patient and don’t care about the phone bill, but that won’t do if you need to see your doctor the same week, let alone the same day. This is what I need today, so that he can renew his requisition for physiotherapy on my tennis elbow.
The door is pushed open from inside, and we shuffle in past the security guard, each tugging a little ticket from the dispenser. These senhas are supposed to determine the order in which we are seen, but three or four of the people I have been queuing with head straight for the counter and begin competing for the attention of the two receptionists. I have virtuously taken a seat and waited for my number to be called, but after a while, book perched on knee, I ask aloud (quite loud) if we have a senha system here or not, and the embarrassed security guard steps in and sorts things out. My very un-Portuguese protest is the sort of thing which makes people here look at you as if you’ve just stepped out of a flying saucer (and reading a book in public doesn’t help.) However a white-haired lady opposite me nods once in silent approval.
Eventually my appointment is made for nine o’clock, so I
have time to go home and have some breakfast beforehand. Back in good time at
the centre, I am not seen till nine-forty, which gives me even more time:
To endure the presence of a very active six-year-old boy, who marches round the small waiting-room unrepressed, shouting and stamping his feet, as his mother consults her mobile phone and from time to time remonstrates without conviction.
To try to get on with my book. It is ‘No Name’, a bulky Wilkie Collins yarn which has been an enjoyable read, though confident authorial intrusions about things like “that strange complexity of motives which is found so much oftener in a woman’s mind than in a man’s” jar a little.
To scan the notices and posters on the waiting-room walls. One of these catches my attention straight away. It shows the roughly sketched outline of a heart, about to be struck by a clenched fist. Beneath is written the following question (my translation):
This is a bit of a mouthful (even more so in Portuguese) and also a bit of a coincidence, because I was present at a demonstration about domestic violence a couple of Sundays ago. The poster goes on to make the point that the violence always gets worse as time goes on, and that was what the demo was about, more specifically the fact that dozens of women are stabbed, punched or kicked to death in domestic attacks in Portugal every year[ii], and not much is ever done about it, nor about the other 27,000 cases of domestic violence which are reported annually in Portugal.[iii]
It was a drizzly day for the march, which was due to end up in front of the Portuguese parliament building, in the centre of Lisbon on a street which slopes down to the river. Our plan was to kill two birds with one stone, by having a quick spot of lunch at a little Lebanese snack-bar Veronica had wanted to show me for a while, then joining the marchers as they thronged by. The last march I had been on was ten years ago, against austerity and all that, so I had a vaguely-formed expectation of banners and shouted slogans, and megaphones, and passionate impatient young busybodies in gilets jaunes, and the shuffling of thousands of feet. In the event we nearly missed the march altogether. As we were finishing our meal I paid a visit to the counter to inspect the syrupy pastries on display, and caught a glimpse of small groups and clots of people drifting past along the broad street outside. Imagining that these were precursors of the march, in advance of the vanguard, banners and so on, I went outside while Veronica paid. In the event there were no banners, megaphones or passionate slogans, only three or four hundred people strolling along in the light drizzle, some under umbrellas, most bare-headed, silent or chatting or checking their mobile phones. By the time Veronica joined me on the pavement the last stragglers had passed, and we made our way down to the parliament building in our own time.
The Assembleia da Republica is housed in a large neo-classical palace, white as a wedding-cake and full of columns, pediments and so on. It is set well back from and high above the street, and can be reached by pedestrians via a broad flight of fifty or sixty wide steps, flanked by sloping lawns and formal gardens. The march had washed up at the foot of these steps, on the bottom three or four of which stood a row of glum-faced men and women facing the crowd, holding hand-written signs against their chests and wearing gags. I had been expecting a bit more energy, a speech or two, but it was explained to me that today’s demo was a silent protest. This wasn’t quite the case for us and the people standing around us (who were greeting, chatting, exchanging news and trying to manage their children) but it was definitely pretty quiet. Somebody told me later that on the same day the Church had organised its own demo about the same issue, which explained the low turnout, though I suspect the weather might have had something to do with it as well.
After a while some chanting of slogans was organised, but shortly after that the drizzle began to turn to proper rain, and we moved away down the hill towards the train station.
“Well I married me a wife, she’s been trouble all my life.”
On the way down the hill we pass three elderly ladies discussing the demo. As we pass, one is saying scornfully: “Pois! Metem-lhes os cornos, e acontece isto”. This can be approximately rendered in English as “Well what do they expect? They play around, and that’s what happens.”
Here we have the default narrative for femicide. The American Folk and Country music canons are packed with stories about cheating women, and loving men driven by their unbearable pain to murder them. These songs tend to be centred on the murderer, to whom a very sad tragedy has happened, rather than on the woman, to whom a very painful murder has happened. The murderer deserves our sympathy, for his pain, his guilt and his destroyed life, the woman deserves everything she gets, insofar as she is considered at all. As Othello puts it to himself, in a bracing appeal to Elizabethan male solidarity: “Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.”
The Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” was the first song I heard on this theme (Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle cover of it was twice as good), and a few years later on, in the decade of love, it spread to rock music, with Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe”, the Grateful Dead’s rocked up “Cold Rain and Snow” and Neil Young’s over-long-but-fabulous-anyway “Down by the River”, among plenty of others (web-links below for your predilection, if you have the time and don’t have a life). Me and my long-haired pals sang along to these songs with gusto and air-guitars, only dimly aware of the way they imprinted and perpetuated wife-murder in popular culture.
Presumably rap and hip-hop took things considerably further, but then
I’ll leave things there for now.
[i] ‘Ele já lhe
bateu, ou se impôs fisicamente, fazendo-a sentir-se desconfortável?’
[ii] more than five hundred women have been murdered in domestic violence in Portugal since 2004, (the most recent victims being the eight already killed by the end of January this year.)
Of these 27,000 cases per year, less than 7% of cases result in a conviction. A recent
Council of Europe report warned about the extremely low conviction rates and
strongly criticised the feebleness of investigations by the Portuguese
authorities, given that domestic violence is supposed to be a priority crime, that
the investigation doesn’t depend on the victim’s testimony, and that the
identity of the perpetrator is clear from the first.