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.

Another mixed bag

There are three headed sections to this post. I only point that out because at least one person missed the Sports Couch section of the last one (Heskey admits: ‘Thank Christ for that, I was shitting myself’) because it came at the end of the post.

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Journal: the weather, geronto-bullying, two days in Aveiro

It looks like autumn has finally, properly, come to Carcavelos. Up till a couple of weeks ago we would still get the occasional outlandishly hot afternoon, when flies would wake with a start to find they were alive after all, and blunder about the house buzzing and banging their heads against the windows before dying again, or you would go out with a jacket on only to find it was 80°F outside. But now we have had days of deep puddles, cold, thin, persistent rain, hissing car-tyres and old ladies’ umbrellas knocking your hat off in the High Street. Suddenly it feels like winter is coming.

I have been much bullied by old ladies in the last couple of weeks. In the supermarket, I was jostled in the queue for the cash desk by an elderly, thickset little woman behind me, who needed me out of the way because she was impatient to start laying out her shopping before there was really space for her to do so. When I asked her politely if she would mind giving me some room, she scowled at me contemptuously and did not bother to reply. A day or two later I joined a queue behind another one, partly because she didn’t have much in her basket. However, just as I was reaching the surface where you unload your shopping, she was joined by a young teenager, presumably her grand-daughter, whom she impatiently beckoned forward to push in front of me with a full trolley. As she and the elderly woman began unloading it I (foreign, male, but getting old at least…) was moved to protest, and was once again treated to a blank look of such implacable rudeness that I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had spat on the floor at my feet. The young girl at least had the grace to look apologetic.

These things bring to mind a little incident in the busy, picturesque town of Aveiro a couple of weeks ago. It was a rainy morning, and we were about to use a zebra-crossing across a side-street when there was an outraged cry from a young woman stepping onto the other side, as a car not only failed to stop but accelerated across. You will have guessed what follows by now, but the driver was a woman in what looked like her mid-sixties, her face set and looking fixedly ahead as if she was thinking ‘I’ve got this bloody thing moving now, and I’m not stopping for anyone’. As she joined the main avenue, followed by an indignant word or two, I wondered aloud if she even realised that she was supposed to stop – there was a rustic look about her. Veronica’s view, expressed drily, was that she was probably preoccupied thinking about all the things she had to do that day. Veronica has recently read the very funny spoof Ladybird book How It Works: The Mum, the first page from which is reproduced below and has struck a bit of a chord with her, although she is now a three-time grandmother [i].

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Aveiro was worth the visit, if you’re ever thinking of going. We took the train from Santa Apolónia station on Sunday morning, the day after Hurricane Leslie made landfall, and stayed in the Aveiro Palace (the big pinkish building in the first picture), right by the canal. Our room was on the first floor, and had a narrow balcony running its length where you could sit with a drink and watch the canal and the main bridge, with crowds of tourists and day-trippers dawdling about or sitting on damp rowing-benches in moliceiros. These are traditional boats like gondolas only bigger, which used to go out into the lagoon and collect eel-grass for agriculture, but now spend their days carrying tourists up and down the canal.  They are beautiful, but we didn’t go on one.

troncalhada-eco-museum

My research on the reliable IPMA site had assured me that the weather that first day would be decent, with continuous rain to come on Monday, so we thought we would leave the museums for the next day and get out and about straight away. After some lunch we walked west along the broad canal and then north-west round a dog-leg, admiring it all, the moliceiros, the park, the picturesque house-fronts in the sunshine. After a few hundred yards we had left the town behind, and soon reached the bridge and lock-gates where the canal joins the lagoon. We sat on a low crash-barrier for a while, watching the lock-gates working and enjoying the cold fishy smell of the water (or maybe that was just me). By the lock was the Eco-Museum, which was not, as I had wrongly understood from the Internet page, the shed pictured above, but the salt-pans beyond it, which here and there have large signs you can stand in front of, reading all about salt. I do eat plenty of salt and was moderately interested, but there being salt-pans I had been hoping to see some waders too. Unfortunately there was only one bird, poking about as if it didn’t have much else to do. It was a black-winged stilt, a beautiful and elegantly-proportioned creature, but as it was alone I stopped watching after a while, not wishing to cause it embarrassment.

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Late the next morning, Monday, we are standing in light rain in a park I found on a pre-breakfast stroll, looking owlishly at an Archimedes screw by the side of an ornamental lake. There used to be a poster in our Design Technology room in the school where I worked. It was one of these stirring things teachers love to put on their walls, and went something like ‘Tell me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; let me do it and I will understand.’ On the internet there are plenty of variations on this, sometimes identified as a Chinese proverb, sometimes attributed to Benjamin Franklin (incorrectly, as one site primly points out, not that I give a monkey’s). Teachers, and especially educational middle-management types, and even more especially the ones you get at educational conferences, are great lovers of snappy sayings like this (‘fail to prepare and prepare to fail’ is another). We had a principal who had been a big administrator in the IB Middle Years Programme and thought he was a bit of a genius, and he used to say ‘Less is More’ quite a lot. It must have been newly fashionable about that time. I had a lot of trouble with it, because it seemed perfectly plain to me that less of something is less of it and more of it is more. When I was talked through the thing by a patient colleague I grasped the basic meaning, which seemed to be that moderation can be a more effective approach than overdoing things, but I didn’t feel that much new ground had been broken with this idea, once it was stripped of the meretricious gloss of verbal paradox. Anyway, the reason I mentioned that poster at the start of the paragraph is because today the opposite happens with me and this Archimedes screw, which is very similar to the one pictured. When I first learned about them, as a child at school, the principle seemed perfectly clear to me –  you turn that, this goes round, and the water in the screw is carried up and pours out at the top. But no matter how many times Veronica or I turn the handle, nor how narrowly I watch the water, I can’t see how it’s done. I’m like someone watching one of those TV magicians.

After Hurricane Leslie there are still a half-dozen or so fallen trees in the park, which is carpeted everywhere with snapped-off branches and twigs. We wander about, wondering at the destruction, but after a while the rain comes on harder and we head for Aveiro Museum, which apparently has a lot of things worth seeing and where we plan to spend two or three hours. What we have forgotten, of course, is that Portuguese museums close on Mondays. We go to the cathedral instead, which is noteworthy for the beautifully clean lines of its high, square transept, but where we are obliged to put up with a middle-aged Roma woman (I believe you can’t say gypsy these days) to whose aged mother I think I have just given money outside the cathedral. She is having an interminable, angry and very loud conversation on her mobile phone. Before we leave, I approach and ask her if she comes to the cathedral for a peaceful place to think and pray, but she is not amused by this.

Next day we are due to catch the early-afternoon train, but have time to return to the museum if we get a move on. We enter and approach a counter, where a woman on the phone jerks her head to indicate we should go to another counter further on. There, we are told that yes we can have tickets, but the museum will be closing for lunch in twelve minutes, and reopening an hour-and-a-half later. Even so we have time to look at the beautifully-worked marble tomb of Santa Joana and  at the Igreja de Jesus, which is hideously ornate and seems to be composed entirely of gold, in marked and ugly contrast with the stylish austerity of the cathedral.

Vlad the Impala.

… was the happy result of a slip of the tongue the other day, which has given me the idea of founding The Animal Axis of Evil, if I can find enough thugs to keep Vlad company. So far he has been joined by Ivan the Terrapin, Billy the Squid, and Jack the Kipper (not quite an animal, but this is harder than you might think). Osama bin Llama has been rejected on syntactic grounds, but even so I am considering a pair of Jerbils, one of them called Joseph. I have had to reject Lily the Skink, Winnie the Gnu and Robert the Moose as not being anywhere near evil enough, but Onan the Parrot (Dorothy Parker’s pet, so named because he spilt his seed on the ground) asks virtuously: ‘if masturbation isn’t an evil, what is?’ Suggestions for further adoptions are welcomed.

Adagio for Ingerland

It was bad enough having ITV Sport ruin The Verve’s Bitter Sweet (sic) Symphony for ever by using it as the theme music for England football matches. Now Sky (of course) have gone one further by appropriating Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings for their adverts trailing England’s autumn rugby internationals. I confess I had never heard the piece before I saw Platoon, but it seems to me still that the Adagio both dignified and was dignified by the film, in a moving and wholly successful synergy. It is painful to see it used by Sky as the background to a ghastly piece of patriotic doggerel about following the rose through the highs and the lows. They already did this to Nimrod, God damn them.

Toodle-oo

[1] At a lunch party the other week, conversation had turned to the horrors of being a lone parent flying with children, and she contributed the following, in a ‘top this one’ tone and without a trace of irony: ‘I was at the airport recently and saw this poor, poor woman with three young children and a husband’.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

Bits and Pieces

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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

 

49884867_e439112-neolithic_settlement-spl

Menhirs, cromlechs, dolmens and all that (1)

cork-oak-alentejo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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