My other country, right or wrong

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The Animal Axis of Evil

TFSOM has had to hire extra staff to deal with the flood of applications to join this den of wickedness. Having narrowed the field to two outstanding candidates, the committee has been unable to separate William the Conger-eel and Genghis Kangaroo, extending membership to both.  Congratulations to them and to their sponsors Mick and Jane.

My other country, right or wrong

Living in modestly comfortable retirement outside the UK, I have looked on as aghast as anyone at the mess which has followed the lunatic Brexit vote of June 2016, and at the cast of awful characters it has thrown up. From what has felt like a safe distance, I have shaken my head in wonderment at the colourless, backstabbing weasel Michael Gove, the conceited philistine oaf and failed jester Boris Johnson, the unspeakable Nigel Farage, the slithery, patronising, impervious Jacob Rees-Mogg, the hapless Theresa May, tottering towards the tumbril with those little short steps as if her elbows have been bolted to her sides.

But while I have looked on in disbelieving fascination, I have all along felt complacently detached from the spectacle, because I live in Europe (proper Europe, not Britain), and have worked and contributed here for many years. Now that I am retired here, I get a reasonable pension from the Portuguese state which makes up the greater part of my income, and I feel not only quite lucky, but quite lucky to be a European – and not much like going back to live in Britain. And if I am a properly paid-up Portuguese pensioner, I have reasoned, surely they won’t kick me out just because I’m no longer a EU citizen. Will they?

Well of course, they might.

So the logical next step is to apply for Portuguese citizenship, so that I can have dual Portuguese-British nationality. Unfortunately, any expatriate Brit with an ounce of sense has already taken care of that over the last couple of years, so lazy complacent TFSOM is joining the back of a long queue, cap metaphorically in hand. The first stage is a Portuguese language test, which I will not be able to (even try to) register for until December. After that it will necessarily be a tiresome and apparently very long bureaucratic labyrinth, but theoretically there will be an end to it one day, and I will be the proud recipient of my ‘nacionalidade portuguesa’.

It’s easy for an expat [i] to fall into a habit of mind which patronises, dismisses or is wryly amused by the host nation and its customs (and perhaps particularly easy for the British, who don’t seem to be getting over the empire very well). I have seen people shake their heads, roll their eyes heavenward and say ‘this could only happen here’ in Greece, in India, in Brazil and now in Portugal. They say it in every country, just about different things. I’ve said it myself in all the above places, including Portugal. But when I used the word ‘proud’ above it wasn’t just a manner of speaking, because as the idea of being a Portuguese national has formed over the last few months I’ve realised (slightly to my surprise at first) that I would take great pride in it. There’s a lot to like and admire here. I could start with the obvious: the weather, the wine, the beaches, the birds, the countryside (all lovely); or with the way the country has found its own way to emerge from the global financial crisis, austerity and all that [ii] (very admirable); or to be topical, with the way Portuguese environmentalists have this month stopped Big Oil from drilling off the Alentejo coast (hurrah again). But instead I’ll be taking the usual worm’s eye view of things.

  1. The young aren’t too bad, at least where I live, which is not posh but not rough either. I’m not an especial fan of young people in general, but I like the patient and respectful way Portuguese ones often behave with the old, and the fact that I don’t get my head beaten in when I remonstrate politely with groups of teenagers in the park about revving their motorbikes noisily or damaging the plants. I am also amazed by the way they don’t seem to mind each other’s company when sober. In a café it is not uncommon to see seven or eight young people chatting and laughing for hours round two tiny tables bearing four coffees, one beer and three bottles of mineral water, with no compulsion to drink themselves stupid, nor any nagging by management to consume more (unlike the foreign students I was teaching in Cambridge once, who told me that the local pub had asked them to leave for not drinking enough.)
  2. People like going out for a proper lunch. When I worked, I always sat at my desk eating a sandwich, or forking leftovers into my mouth from a Tupperware, but as much as anything that was because I was busy and not very good at chatting to people. The Portuguese, in contrast, like to get away from the work-place, get their knees under a table and have a proper knife-and-fork, sit-down lunch. I approve of this, also the fact that nowadays you far less often see customers putting away half a litre of wine before driving back to work.
  3. Eating out is quite cheap. It is in general, but especially in the crowded, noisy little lunchtime restaurants which cater to the above clientele.
  4. People don’t go for walks in the country. In Britain, the countryside is seething with cheery ramblers, or fell-walkers with hiking-poles and proper footwear, who say things like ‘Just look at that, isn’t that beautiful?’, and smack their lips histrionically after a gulp of ale, and want to walk miles. In Portugal, once you’ve gone a hundred metres from the last parking-spot, you’re unlikely to be bothered by another soul.
  5. People just put up with each other. For example, there is a certain kind of Portuguese clever-dick who likes to jump the queue at motorway exit slip-roads by cruising slowly along winking in the inside lane, then diving in front of someone else at the last minute. Veronica and I simmer with disapproval, and shake our heads, and say ‘Unbelievable, just look at that fucker, why do people let them get away with it’, and are tempted to drive a yard from the rear-bumper of the car in front, just to stop it happening to us. (Veronica told me she did this once, but it didn’t work out well). However, in a recent road-to-Damascus moment I suddenly realised that it is far better for the blood-pressure if you don’t focus on the dickheads, but on the nineteen people out of twenty who are doing the right thing, which most people in Portugal do. I am working on this.
  6. Nobody in Portugal gives a tinkers about their royal family. Enterprising revolutionaries assassinated the king a hundred or so years ago, and made sure they killed his heir too. His younger brother was deposed after two years and ran off to exile in Twickenham (where he became the first president of the Twickenham Piscatorial Society), and that was that. There is ‘a prominent and active heir to the throne [iii]’ as the website The Mad Monarchist noted a year or two ago, and ‘some cause for hope that the horrendous error of October 1910 may someday be corrected and the royal house of Braganza restored to its proper place on the throne of Portugal’. But if you exclude a few Jacob Rees-Mogg nutters of this type, and Olá, the Portuguese royal family is taken no more seriously than it deserves.

I could go on, but will leave the matter there for now. It goes without saying that none of the foregoing in any way disqualifies me from being patronising, dismissive and wryly amused about Portugal whenever the need arises.

 Sports Couch: Turds of Wisdom

I suspect not many people ever bother to read this section, but anyway the following may amuse:

  1. Sky Sports Cricket have finally got rid of the charmless and unsightly Ian Botham as a pundit, but we seem to be seeing an awful lot of Nasser Hussein, with mixed results. Half-way through the women’s T20 World Cup semi-final, with England having been set a smallish total by a very feeble India, he sagely counselled caution, because ‘make no mistake, this is not a pitch to knock off the runs for three wickets, with three overs to spare’. Sure enough, an hour or so later England had knocked off the runs for two wickets, with three overs to spare.
  2. Or how about Eddie Jones’s prediction before the England-Australia rugby match last weekend: ‘We think Australia will come out like they always come out, like a bull at a china-gate.’

See you soon.

[i] It has recently come to my knowledge that the correct pronunciation both of this abbreviation and of the full personal noun ‘expatriate’ has the pat pronounced like ‘pate’ (though one source did acknowledge the peculiar British variant of pronouncing pat like ‘pat’). How long will it be before Trump tweets: “What’s wrong with these people, why did they stop being patriots?”

[ii] After a few years of conservative government collaborating with the ECB and the IMF in strangling the economy and punishing the population, in the last three years a Socialist-led coalition has dumbfounded neo-cons by increasing investment and public spending, resisting privatisations and reducing both the budget deficit and unemployment.

[iii] This was the Duke of Bragança, who is patron of the Portuguese version of the Duke of Edinburgh award, the Prémio Infante D’Henrique. A year or two ago he came to the school to present certificates. He was a pear-faced, absent-looking man, in late middle-age, with a moustache. He was well-managed by a clutch of camp, snotty little aides, but to the casual observer didn’t seem very active.

Go Away or Face Arrest

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October 12th

Carcavelos beach is busier than I expected this lunchtime. The weather is not yet fully autumnal, but it has turned cooler, and from the carpark just off the Avenida Marginal I am mildly surprised to see scatterings of beach-goers all along the broad sandy beach. Showing commendable fortitude, some still lie on towels in only swimsuits or bikinis, but those standing in little groups to chat, arms crossed, have mostly got T-shirts on over their swimwear. Nobody is keen to spend very long in the water, except for the scores of young would-be surfers who crowd the silvery-blue sea in their wetsuits. Surfing became fashionable among Portuguese children and young adolescents several years ago, but the boom in surf-schools shows no sign of slowing. However,  it is dogs which are banned, as a lifeguard in a yellow T-shirt is patiently explaining to a dog-owner down by the water’s edge, observed equably by the offending animal, a fluffy terrier with its tongue poking out slightly. Modest but surfable waves are breaking a little way out, bright spangles of light flashing along each foam-patched front as it rears. The sky is a gentle blue above high cloud, crisscrossed by faint vapour trails in varying stages of dissolution.

There was a sad scene last night. About ten o’clock, the doorbell rang.  As the dog barked and yapped, Veronica and I exchanged a wary look. Nobody calls at that time of night, so this wasn’t going to be anything good.  Sure enough, when I opened the gate there was a skinny, beat-looking man standing there, supporting himself on a single crutch. He had a battered baseball cap on, over dirty hair which needed cutting. He was unshaven, the stubble greying. He looked forty-something, but was probably younger. His clothes looked as if they would be greasy to the touch.

I gave an audible groan, but he had already begun his patter, delivered in a low rapid mumble. His eyes were on the ground, and I had to strain to hear. I understood very little, except that he was sorry to come back again, and he was sorry it was late, but he remembered I had helped before. His father had died, he had just come from the hospice, he wasn’t well himself, he had a condition of the blood which he had inherited from his mother who was also dead, he couldn’t pay for the medication. He was rummaging with his right hand in a bag held against his chest with his left arm, and presently produced an empty, battered-looking medicine packet which he showed me.

I was ashamed that I hadn’t recognised him at first, but I did now. I didn’t remember how much I had given him the last time, but I suspected it might have been ten euros. He was still talking, but seemed to have gone back to the beginning of his story and started again. I had been hearing him out with my own eyes down, but clearly it was time to close the gate or give him something.

“OK I’m going to give you five euros,” I said, feeling stingy. I went to fetch it and ran into Veronica in the kitchen, who had come to see why I had been at the gate so long. I repeated what I had understood him to say, and she looked mildly sceptical. I was sceptical myself, but what did it matter what we believed or didn’t believe? One look was enough to tell you that this bloke’s life had come off the rails, and things weren’t going to get any better for him.

I handed over the money, and he thanked me and limped off. Judging by his decently embarrassed mumble of gratitude, he didn’t remember that I’d given him more the last time.

Meanwhile, another day in paradise is in full swing at Carcavelos beach. Down by the water’s edge, parked windsurfing rigs lie with their single sails upright and rippling cheerfully in the freshening breeze. Their shape reminds me of the wings of those flying ants we used to suddenly get swarms of when I was young, one day a year in summer. The cafes and restaurants all along the promenade are packed with tanned, relatively solvent, relatively healthy individuals, tucking into grilled fish, boiled potatoes and salad.

It felt mean-spirited. giving someone whose life was such a continuing calamity a five euro note, but a hundred or a thousand wouldn’t fix things. Also I was afraid that giving  more would make me even  more of  an easy touch. You can’t be over-generous or you’ll never get rid of these people. It’s like Theresa May, creating a Hostile Environment for illegal immigrants with her nasty Go Home or Face Arrest vans (an instruction which will have raised a thin smile among the homeless).

But what can you do?

 

Sports Couch

Heskey admits: ‘Thank Christ for that, I was shitting myself’

Alarmed by growing rumours of an imminent recall to international football, Emile Heskey is able to relax after the strong performance of England’s strikers against Spain. It is now a week since England became world-beaters again, by totally outclassing and walloping the ex-world champs 3-2.

TFSOM was as delighted as Heskey and everybody else by the scintillating performance of the front three (as the commentator on Sky enthused, perhaps venturing into the ungrammatical: ‘Spain give the ball away to England in this mood at their very peril’), but without wishing to rain on the tabloid parade, it was a bit worrying that England had:

  • less than 25% of the ball
  • only 5 shots on goal (Spain had 25)
  • no corners in the entire match (Spain had 12).

On top of that, the defence looked as error-prone as ever, with the much admired Harry Maguire in particular misplacing passes, getting caught in possession, missing important defensive headers, and on at least one occasion being so well and truly stood up by a dummy that it looked momentarily as though somebody had left a step-ladder on the pitch. Let’s see how they do against mighty Croatia at home, but surely the jury is still out.

Toodle-oo!

But first, the World Cup

So today’s the day. England Under-17s take on Spain in the World Cup final. It’s an unfamiliar feeling, this. It ought to feel inevitable that an England football team will choke, or look suddenly ordinary, or in some other way mess things up, against a big-name team like Spain. As everyone knows, it’s fifteen years since a senior England side beat a decent team in any finals. That was in Japan in 2002, when we scraped through unconvincingly against Argentina with a Beckham penalty.  In the 2004 Euros we really fancied ourselves, but both France and Portugal beat us, and I won’t go into what has happened since, golden generation and all.

Coming down the age-range a notch, four months ago the Under 21s got knocked out of the Euros, by, yes, you’ve guessed it, Germany on penalties. OK, you may point out that three weeks earlier, the Under20s had beaten Italy on the way to deservedly winning their own World Cup. But the unpalatable fact is that England very rarely indeed beat a major footballing nation at any level. So, my reasoning goes, if we had any sense we wouldn’t expect too much today.

But for anyone who has been watching this team, it’s hard to shake a feeling of quiet confidence that they can beat Spain and win this World Cup. This isn’t because they have swept through the tournament, outclassing and out-passing every team they have come up against. 4-0 against Iraq looks good, but England were laboured for much of the game, and didn’t finish the Iraqis off until late on. They needed penalties against Japan (when you may remember the England goalkeeper Curtis Anderson put on an unedifying display of poor sportsmanship, unchecked by the referee), and in the quarter-final against USA, they spent quite a bit of their time wondering where the ball was. But what they have is a solid and physically imposing back four, a consistently high-class midfielder in Phil Foden (who looks eerily like Jack Wilshere on the ball), and a proper centre-forward who knows how to put the ball in the net. They like to play the ball forward quickly and positively, rather than pass it around aimlessly, predictably and riskily at the back (as the senior team do, because they’ve been told over and over that they must do whatever it takes, no matter how negative and pointless, to deny the ball to the opposition). Above all these boys play with conviction, as if they don’t just intend to win but know how they are going to do it. That was enough to put a talented and highly-fancied Brazil side away, and might well be too good for Spain.

But steady on, let’s not get too cheerful. Since the senior team’s grisly tournament record has ended any expectations of their having it in them to do well when the chips are down (only a lunatic would bet on them doing well in a tournament against Germany, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Italy, France, Belgium, Portugal or plenty of others) England fans have wedded themselves to hope. It’s nice to dream about the future, and commentators and journalists have spoken excitedly about the year’s age-group successes as if this is a successful senior England team in waiting. But it isn’t.

A big part of the excitement in watching the Under-17s is the fact that hardly anyone outside football (perhaps excluding the diehards who turn out to watch club training-sessions and reserve matches) had heard of these kids until a few weeks ago. It’s like finding a box of chocolates you didn’t know you had, all with new names and flavours. There’s something dream-like about it.

That is a very different feeling from what you get with the Under-21s, where you find yourself watching the likes of Calum Chambers or James Ward Prowse; or even the Under 20s, with Calvert Lewin, Solanke and so on. The problem is that, unlike the Under-17s, we have seen these players for their clubs, and have got used to seeing them look decent-but-nothing-special-yet, and in most cases not even likely to be special. Nobody in his right mind gets dreamy-eyed about a future England team based on Chalobah or Ward-Prowse (let alone Chambers, God forbid) because we have seen what these players offer in league football.  And it’s no use comparing the FA’s development programme with what Clairefontaine did for the French team. Good young French players get regular games for their clubs, but when English commentators enthuse about players for the future like Solanke, Gomez, Maitland-Niles and the rest it’s hard to resist a sceptical twinge at the back of your mind, because you know that unless they keep improving at a very steep rate indeed, Klopp or Wenger are going to move them on to Sunderland or West Brom after a year or two, and that might very well be the end of them (I’m not even going to talk about Chelsea’s market-garden approach to youth development).

So caution is advised when making predictions about even this exciting Under-17 team: the real challenge will be getting a game for their clubs.

But first, the World Cup.

 

* Note to the reader. This post is not intended to be (particularly) humorous, but I can’t make the Categories work properly.