Bits and Pieces

img_0842_11-1500x630Foreword

Hello anybody who is still there, sorry to have kept you, thank you for holding etc. I’m still not dead, but one or two people have asked if I have written another post, or have I given up or what, so I thought I’d better write something quick before people stop asking. In a week or two I hope to be publishing something outstandingly interesting and amusing, a real rib-tickler full of wisdom and insight. I can scarcely wait to write it. However, it is currently at what a student of mine once dubbed the pre-ideas stage, so for now I will write whatever this turns out to be. That’s 110 words already.

Newsletter

As predicted in my last post, a second-rate England team were nowhere near good enough during the rest of the World Cup, which didn’t come home. But it’s a dismal thing to have been right about. The rest of the summer was full of family visits, grandchildren and so on, and when that wasn’t happening we had building work going on. We also spent a week or so in the UK. Since then I have been busy emptying my flat, sorting out the garden and generally preparing the place for letting so that I can join the rentier class at last. The weather has continued sunny and dry throughout September, gradually getting cooler but with occasional very hot spells. Everyone is back at work or school now and the morning traffic is terrible again, though Veronica tells me the tourism in Lisbon seems to have slackened off earlier this year than last, to everyone’s relief.

Bits and Pieces

The RA Summer Exhibition

This is colourful and entertaining, not least the way some of the public turn themselves out. I lead a sheltered life, but you only ever seem to see people dressed like that at art galleries. I overhear a cadaverous, posh-sounding old man with a beard, long straggly hair and a strange long coat say with a dry chuckle ‘quite a few people are dressed as if they would like to be taken for artists themselves.’ I think he is probably an artist.

More on pork pies

In Saffron Walden market I buy an excellent pork pie, eat it while the others eat their pasties and so on, then sneak back and buy another one twice the size, which I hide in my bag. Later I bring it out and share what’s left round, because I feel quite sick by then. But if you’re ever in Saffron Walden, don’t miss out.

The charm of Devon

The following is an account of three little incidents which happened in Devon within four hours of each other. If it gives the impression that Devonians are surly, ill-bred people who can’t manage their tempers, this is regretted.

With my daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, we are renting one end of a sizeable thatched cottage which stands at right-angles to the narrow road out of the village. A gateway off the road gives onto a gravel parking area, with our kitchen door and window on the right and on the left a high brick wall, pierced by a wooden door which leads to a large walled garden. Inside, there are broad herbaceous borders, wooden benches, a good-sized lawn, a little pavilion, a croquet set and so on. Unseen beyond one of the high walls the road continues down to a hump-backed bridge over a small river, but inside it is very secluded and quite magical. I am feeling reverential in here one morning when there is suddenly the loud huffing and squeaking and jouncing of a lorry brought to an abrupt halt, and immediately afterwards a rich Devon voice bawls out:

You’re the problem, if you want to know! And I don’t take kindly to being called an idiot.’

By the time I have scuttled across the lawn, through the door and across the gravel to the chest-high street gate, he has climbed down from the cab and is glaring back up the street. His lorry is no more than eight feet from the gate, but he doesn’t glance in my direction.

‘That is no way to bloody park, and if you don’t know that, you should. And if you want me to come back up there, I will.”

There is no reply, and he snorts disgustedly, climbs back up into his cab and drives on. Following him very slowly at a careful distance is one of those smart BMW minis, a convertible, containing a septuagenarian blonde dolly-bird straight from the sixties (without the PVC cap). She pulls a quintessentially middle-class face at me as she passes, midway between a shrug and a collusive, shamefaced smirk. ‘Well really’, you can almost hear her thinking.

Two or three hours later we are in Seaton, an old-school picturesque seaside town (though less picturesque than in photos), complete with an amusement arcade also straight from the sixties. The beach is pebbly, and slopes so steeply that Veronica struggles to clamber back out of the sea, which is chilly and grey-green. It’s all a bit Shoreham Harbour. Later, I am waiting for our order in the fish-and-chip shop, but step outside because a group of over-excited six-and-eight-year-olds are shouting and running about in the space between the counter and the dining area, where an overweight couple are finishing their lunch, visibly unhappy about the disturbance. I wander along the prom, returning to find a row going on outside the shop, where two slightly overdressed, slightly over made-up thirty-something women are haranguing the couple, especially the woman. She is in a wheelchair. The man stands behind her, looking stolid and resigned.

They are probably in their fifties, and dressed dowdily compared with the slim young mothers in their tops, jeans and heels. It’s not clear what has happened already, but the woman in the wheelchair is on the back foot, and looking shifty as her antagonists get into their stride.

‘Do you think it’s all right then, swearing at children?’ enquires one of them shrilly.

‘She didn’t swear’, says the man stoutly.

‘Oh yes she did,’ says the other one. ‘She said bloody. She said ‘get out of my way you kids, where are your bloody parents’.

The woman in the wheelchair rallies: ‘Well, they were blocking the way out, weren’t they? Kids shouldn’t be allowed to make a disturbance like that.’ She has a stronger Devon accent than the two mothers, though they are local too.

‘We were paying at the time. And that’s no way to speak to children’.

I have paused in the doorway of the chip-shop and am looking on quite openly, but the combatants are so intent on their row that I am ignored for the second time today. I am strongly with the wheelchair couple, of course. The two mothers weren’t paying when I left the shop, and the disturbance had been going on for quite a while by then. I had been annoyed by it too, and mildly indignant that someone having lunch in the restaurant area next door thought it was OK for their children to disturb other people in that way. Apart from that, it all seems a lot of fuss about nothing.  As a boy growing up in a country town I was always getting shouted at and having fists shaken at me by older people. We called them ‘old moaners’ amongst ourselves and that was that; it would never have crossed my mind to bother my mum with it. And is ‘bloody’ all that bad, nowadays? Tell that to an Australian.

‘Well, it’s gone now, it’s over,’ says wheelchair-woman grumpily, as if making a concession.

‘No it isn’t, it isn’t over yet,’ says the first mother excitedly. ‘We’ll decide when it’s over.’

‘You should be ashamed of yourself’, says the other. ‘You should apologise to the children for what you said.’

This takes the biscuit. By now I quite dislike these young women, who seem to stand for something about modern parenting which I also don’t much like. I am strongly tempted to tell them not to be so bloody ridiculous, but the row has by this time reached that stage where the aggrieved parties have little choice but to walk away or launch an actual physical attack. They do the former, shaking their heads and casting dark scowls behind them.

Two minutes later, I have paid for the (excellent) fish and chips and am applying extra salt and vinegar to my own portion. There is nothing worse than finding a hundred yards down the road that the salt and vinegar haven’t penetrated below the top layer of chips, so I am turning them over with my fingers as I go, and tasting a chip from time to time. The amused owners look on benevolently, then the man turns to his left and says with a smile:

‘Are you ready to order, sir?’

‘Well, when this man has finished eating his dinner at the counter, yes’, says a weedy, querulous voice.

I turn in astonishment, but can’t think what to say to the man, who avoids my eye and keeps avoiding it as he gives his order. He is short and nondescript, middle-aged, accompanied by his wife (I presume). Surely he must know how rude that sounded.

‘When this gentleman has finished eating his dinner, you probably mean’, I feel like saying, but instead I apply more salt and vinegar, thank the owners and leave, holding my stack of cardboard cartons carefully.

I need you

Another interesting language misjudgement at Stansted airport, as we are shuffling with the rest towards the security gates. A young woman in a security officer’s uniform pipes up plaintively: ‘Keep moving please,’ (as they do) but then a little later ‘I need you to keep moving’, at which my hackles twitch.  I have heard the form over the last few years from people with some authority who want a more PC (or formal, or professional-sounding, or something) way of saying ‘can you do it please’, but to me it sounds teacherly and mealy-mouthed, and coming from this person in this context, over-personal and presumptuous. I feel like telling her that her personal needs are neither here nor there[i].

Football latest

Speaking of language, welcome back football and more particularly football pundits. A couple of baffling gems heard recently:

‘Lorente hasn’t hit the ground running yet.’ Ex-player Clinton Morrison on Sky News.

‘That’s the closest, by some distance, as Watford have come today.’ Commentator on Watford vs Manchester  Utd.

And while we’re at it, if you find the uplifting music of the Champions League anthem as comically inflated as I do, you may enjoy reading the English text, which plumbs bathos’ vast abyss [ii] if anything ever did:

They are the best teams,
They are the best teams,
The main event.

The master,
The best,
The great teams,
The champions.

A big meeting,
A great sporting event,
The main event,

The master,
The best.
The great teams,
The champions.

They are the best,
They are the best,
These are the champions.

The master,
The best,
The champions.

It makes me tingle all over.

West ham have just beaten Manchester United. It is very enjoyable to see Mourinho under such pressure. In his early years he was virtually canonised in Portugal, but I have always disliked him as a sulky primadona with a nasty tongue. I delight in his downfall.

You know, you could have used the word ‘schadenfreude’ there, and nobody would have thought any the worse of you for it.

Oh, are you back? OK, thanks for the tip.

‘Weltanshauung’ is another fine German word, which always brings credit on the user. I use it whenever I can.  

And ‘angst’, I’m sure.

Do you know ‘zeitgeist’?

Another nice one. However, this won’t do, I must get on.

Tschüss!

 

 

[i] But I don’t. I have no wish to tangle with airport security staff, whose hostile faces and lack of courtesy are a chilling foretaste of how we would be treated by the police and armed forces if the British government were ever to declare a state of emergency.

[ii] I think I remember this Byron quote from school, about Robert Southey’s poetry. (I was made to study Don Juan for my O-levels. Who says exams teach you nothing? From other subjects, I remember moraines and ox-bow lakes, and something called the coefficient of linear expansion, though I still have no idea what this is.)

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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Mud, mud…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Spot of Rain

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Another delayed post.

11th October 2017

It’s about five-thirty, a hot and humid late afternoon. The sun is quite low, sloping in at 45 degrees or so, but its heat is still weirdly strong as I step out into the garden.  I potter for a while, bending, straightening, dead-heading, snipping.

Then, out of nothing, a quick patter and rustle around me, and spots of coolness on the back of my white work-shirt. I straighten up.

After three months, it is raining.

The sun continues to beam hotly from the south-west as the rain intensifies. I crane my neck to see a rare sight, a grey cloud directly above, slowly heading north.

‘It’s raining, it’s raining!’ I enthuse, but the dog has headed indoors.

I hurry to turn over the cushions on the garden chairs, and fuss about in wonderment for a while. But it’s over quickly – before the dots and spots on the tiles of the terrace have had a chance to join together, the rain has stopped.

Very interesting, what an afternoon you had, but at the top there, are you sure ‘weirdly’ works? You just mean that it was unseasonably hot, yes?

When I get right down to it, you mean? No actually, I  don’t ‘mean’ that, whatever ‘mean’ means.

Fine, just trying to help.

And it makes no sense anyway.

Don’t start, of course it makes sense.

It has no meaning.

Everyone knows what it means. It’s even in the dictionary.

But unseasonably hot means that the heat was unseasonable, doesn’t it?

Obviously.

Well, also obviously, when something is called unseasonable, that means, and only means, that it cannot be seasoned. ‘Unseasonably hot’ thus means that the afternoon was so hot that it couldn’t be seasoned. And since an afternoon is not something that can be seasoned in the first place, the expression is meaningless.

You’ve lost me a while ago there. Listen, it’s clear to me and everyone else what it means, and it would have made things a lot clearer if you’d just used it in the first place.

Thanks for your views. I’ll give them some thought.

 

 

TFSOM is on the Sofa this Week

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This post is running a bit late.

6th September

We had eaten in a quiet restaurant in Rebelva, near Carcavelos, arriving early so as to get dinner out of the way by mid-evening. It is one of those little restaurants which are packed with quietly grazing elderly couples at lunchtime but are quieter in the evening. The food is simple, tasty and cheap, in the Portuguese way. I’d had some excellent braised pig’s liver with proper hand-cut chips, my wife had the sardines, and I’d had the lion’s share of a half-litre jug of wine.

On the way home we stopped in Carcavelos to drop off one of those light recliner-rocker chair things for babies, the sort of thing you strap a one-year-old into to watch cartoons until they doze off. My wife’s son and daughter-in-law have a new baby.

We parked and walked towards the flat along a quiet street. I was carrying the chair. In a two-and-a-half-glasses-of-red-wine sort of way, I thought it would be jolly to demonstrate an amusing thing I’d once done when carrying an empty Moses-basket across the school lawn (someone needed one, and I had one to lend).  It was lunchtime, and noting a number of chatting teachers observing me idly, I made a show of clucking and grinning into the empty basket as I approached, before simulating a trip which sent it somersaulting into the air, drawing gasps and shouts and screams of alarm in the split-second before everyone realised it was empty. I told you it was amusing.

Unfortunately, this time I was walking on an uneven pavement of those sharp-edged little Portuguese cobblestones, and in theatrically pretending to trip I actually did trip, falling forward  heavily and hard onto my right knee. It was a second or two before I was able to collect myself and inspect it. The impact had opened a jagged three-cornered gash in the kneecap, the shallow flesh split open in the manner of a burst sausage. Blood had splattered around it and on the ground. I gripped the kneecap tightly in my right hand to stem the bleeding.

Is there much more of this?

Quite a bit, but I can hurry it up.

If you wouldn’t mind. That’s probably enough detail on the knee, for instance.

Synopsis.

Veronica, that’s my wife, went on to the flat to get help. After some time an ambulance arrived, and I was taken to Cascais General Hospital, emerging an hour and a half later in a wheel-chair with nine stitches in my knee-cap. Since then I have been twice to the local Health Centre, for follow-up and to have the dressing changed. I was well-treated by the emergency services and have been well-treated at the Health Centre.

Main Characters

Very drunk man

Kept me company (ie wouldn’t go away) when I was alone sitting on the pavement. Kept trying to make me stand up by reaching under my arms, while I waved him off ineffectually. Every time he wandered off, he came wandering back.

Policeman

Called from the police station round the corner by the very drunk man. Young, calm, courteous and helpful. Seemed intelligent and well-educated. Called the ambulance.

The ambulance team.

The young woman who saw to the first aid was capable, courteous, articulate and friendly. In Portugal, the ambulance service is mostly provided by the Bombeiros Voluntários. This is the volunteer fire brigade (men and women), who are paid either nothing or virtually nothing. 90% of firefighters are volunteers. Anything up to a dozen are killed each year (in 2005, it was 16). This friendly and efficient young woman told me she was a trained  socorrista, which is translated not very helpfully in my dictionary as ‘lifeguard’. Her dream was to complete her nursing qualification.

The doctor who stitched up my knee.

Young, capable, overworked. She’d been on all day. Asking advice from a slightly older colleague, she asked how long he’d been on. ‘Since yesterday’ he replied.

Can I see the wound? Have you got a photo?

Ah. I thought you’d never ask.

Well. I’ve seen worse.

I was expecting you to say that.

So, about the chips.

What?

They’d be called ‘hand-crafted’ in England of course. And they’d be ‘heritage potatoes’. Ridiculous, the menus these days. I read an article in the Mail the other week which summed it up for me …

OK can we come back to that? My point is how efficiently and politely I was treated by the emergency services, in a country suffering badly from economic austerity.

And what does that even mean, anyway?

‘Difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure’.

Is that from a dictionary?

And what it’s meaning is that huge numbers of young, well-trained Portuguese doctors and nurses can’t get a job in their own country, and are now working in places like Britain.

Lucky Britain

Lucky Britain unless they get kicked out because of Brexit

So the article was about a menu at some big dinner, and a piece of cod ‘delicately balanced on a sumptuous organic pearl barley risotto, hand in hand with an English courgette flower beignet.’

Was it tasty?

I didn’t eat it, I read about it. I told you, in the Daily Mail. You don’t listen.

Was it ‘line-caught’? You do see that on menus.

I’m not discussing fine dining with someone who eats braised pig’s liver when they go out to eat.

Suit yourself, but it was very tender and tasty. I’ll take your wishes for a prompt recovery as read, shall I?

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2002594/Why-ludicrously-pretentious-menus-turn-stomach.html

https://www.bombeiros.pt/homenagem-2/