Thursday, 24 September 2009

It’s Saturday afternoon, and I am lying in the hammock reading. The Ferrari basks in the sunshine outside the gate. Guinness The Dog chases lizards around the garden. Life is goodish. But then as it gets late, and the shadows start to lick over the trees and me and Guinness The Dog, I get the bug, the itch, to do something, be somewhere. So I get the bus downtown. And downtown Recife is as it always is, the hubadrub of thousands or millions of people milling around and buying rat poison or TV antennas or socks from the hawkers in the street, or small stuffed toys or jeans or underwear from the stores that belt out music/death-by-advertising-jingle every twenty metres or so. The sky is blue, the sun is golden, everything is right with the world. I mooch around the used book sellers at the far end of Avenida Dantas Barreto, and there I come across a treasure – Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels With Herodotus. I haggle a bit with the stall owner – he wants r$15, I offer r$16, we end up at r$10 and a can of Guarana. I rush home, clutching my find in excited, clammy hands.

Only – I don’t! Really a friend of mine asks me to recommend some books, and in the course of our correspondence he recommends a few too, and one of them is Kapuscinski (who I have never heard of), and he lends it to me. And there’s the first rule of reading travel writers, or writers or auto-biographers in general (and I include myself in this sorry list) – we lie. We don’t (or at least I don’t) lie a lot, though Robert Carver, author of Paradise With Serpents – a preposterous transforming of what seems to have been a pleasant enough soiree in Paraguay, where the author unfortunately (or some might say fortunately) nearly-but-not-quite gets mugged at the end, into a tour-of-duty-with-the-Vietcong-what-fresh-hell-is-this-you-can’t-even-drink-the-water-you-kn0w - deserves an honourable mention in the you won’t believe what I got up to on my hols Oscars. But we embellish, we exaggerate, we colour, we dramatise. We talk about going to funk bailles in the Alemão favela when really it was an evangelico church reading group in a perfectly safe though lower class neighbourhood (or worse – you really did go to a funk baille in the Alemão favela, but you went as part of an organised tour with the youth hostel you were staying in) and we talk about murderous football violence when it was a couple of kids throwing hot dogs at each other. We boast about our intrepidness, when really it’s often just a case of getting on the wrong bus, realising we’re in the wrong place, and getting the hell out of there as fast as possible. Because let’s face it, most of us don’t really do that much that’s very interesting, it’s just different because we’re in a different country and culture, and so we have to make it seem that much more interesting to please the folks back home and because we’ve spent a million bucks on the plane ticket.

Ol’ Ryszard adroitly avoids such perils by doing nothing very much at all that is interesting on his travels, at least in his early days*. In fact, Travels With Herodotus might be the only travel book in history that could well have been written without actually doing any travelling at all, apart from Xavier De Maistre’s Journey Around My Bedroom. Ryszard goes to India – he likes it a lot, but what with all the heat and everything, gets tired often, and so spends a lot of time in his room reading, well, Herodotus. He goes to China – he can’t speak the language, finds the Chinese people oppressive and impenetrable, and so spends all his time in his room reading, um, Herodotus. In Africa he wanders about a bit, but still manages to free up approximately 90% of his time to read, you guessed it, Herodotus. Anyway, it’s fantastic, though Peter Robb got the travelling while reading books balance a little bit better in Death In Brazil – more travel, more getting drunk in bars, a little less time reading books in hotel rooms.

Ryszard gets into a few scrapes, though. And in the midst of one of them (following a stranger up a mosque tower in a remote neighbourhood of Cairo in search of a promised fabulous view of the city – you guessed it, he gets mugged at Koranpoint) produces a very fine definition of what it is to do things you know might be stupid but you have to do them anyway because if you don’t then what’s the point of being here in the first place. I am by nature quite credulous, he says, to the point even of regarding suspicion not as a manifestation of reason but a character flaw. This is quite marvellous, I think, and very much sums up my own attitude towards such things – yes, I might get robbed or even killed, but nothing ventured nothing gained, and anyway people on the whole are generally good, somewhere at heart, aren’t they?

Though maybe there’s more to it. I don’t take that many risks in life, generally, but I do have something of a what’s the worst that could happen attitude to things. If someone stole the Ferrari, for example, what would I think? Would I be devastated and distraught? Would I rage against society and the government? Would I form a vigilante group and go out seeking justice? Probably not. I’d probably find it funny, after a while, though a bit frustrating, and after a bit of raging, enjoy the raconteur’s drama of retelling the saga over a sea of alcohol in bars from Rio Doce to Jaboatao (and reduced to taking the bus, I’d be able to drink as much as I liked). And I wonder why I think like this, sometimes. Is it from too many years of living alone? Becoming convinced that, well, if I met with a terrible end, who would really care? My mother, of course, and probably Guinness The Dog (once she noticed her dinner bowl was empty), and now The Fanautico Girlfriend, and a clutch of good and trusted friends around the globe (ok, Norn Iron, Manchester, London, Belo Horizonte, Joao Pessoa and Recife).

Other than that? Gulp.

Is it a product of being, well, a little above average at things generally, but not really good at anything? Meaning that I can get by, earn a crust, make my way in the world without a great deal of effort, and yet at the same time know that I will probably not ever amount to anything truly great, or become very rich or anything like that, so there is very little point in extending oneself overly to try and achieve something that’s probably not going to happen anyway. Meaning that I don’t care very much about how things go, because they’ll always pretty much be about 7/10, even though they sometimes dip down to 5 or 6 and sometimes get as high as 8. In other words, if The Ferrari gets nicked, in a few months I’ll be able to buy another equally aged jalopy. So where’s the loss?

Now there’s a life philosophy to pass on to the grandkids.

In short, I’ve had a good innings, I’ve been around, I have known love, I have read and (ha!) even been read by others (not many, admittedly). I’ve never engaged in carnal relations with a midget Thai prostitute, I’ve never seen the Taj Mahal, and it’s probably not all that much fun anyway, and I’ve never been to Australia, but all of those I can happily live without (particularly the last). So while I’m not about to dive into the middle of Jovem Sport wearing a t-shirt printed Welcome to Serie B, Losers, Beijos from the Inferno equally I’ve developed a healthy well why not? attitude to things that is pretty much essential if you’re going to have any kind of fun (and write about it) in places where the locals talk kind of funny.

And that’s a good thing (and not a suicide note, Ma, in case you’re wondering), isn’t it?

* This is obviously a preposterous thing to say, given that Rszyard Kapuscinski was one of the world´s foremost journalists writing on cultures other than one´s own and how things spin in the darker spots of the globe. But if you read the first part of Travels With Herodotus it really does seem like he has more than a little in common with those admirable monied Brazilian tourists who visit the paradaisical beaches along the Pernambuco coast and then spend their holidays, um, sitting by the hotel pool (though none of these people are much for the reading of books, and certainly not for reading Herodotus). It gets better later, though. All of the above (about Rszyard Kapuscinski) I learnt in a few seconds via internet search engines, which pretty much proves the idea that knowledge and learning are now entirely redundant and all you need to be able to do to pass yourself off as a clever dick is know how to type and read.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

In Travels With Herodotus (of which more later), Ryszard Kapuscinski says of Algiers - I had never been to a city where nature is so kind to man. For it offered everything all at once – the sun, a cooling breeze, the brightness of the air, the sliver of the sea. To which the only thing I would say is that Ryszard obviously never visited Recife in September. Right now it’s about 1.00pm, or at least it was when I was writing this, and the sky is a silly bright blue, with the sea down in front of the house (albeit across a couple of busy roads and a gaggle of bars and restaurants) a thick full green and further out still a deeper blue again. A few glittering palms whisper above my head, and it feels like the last time I saw a rain cloud was in 2006. Guinness The Dog is back from the vet’s and dozes at my feet. Birds twitter. In short - all that kind of crap, for those, as Jernigan says, in the mood to be impressed by such things.

I’ve taken to swimming (though not with bow-legged women) of a night in the pool of a private school in Boa Viagem (oh the shame of it), and it’s nice to dive into the cool water and float on one’s back and look up at the big harvest moon. What with the Ferrari and the Fanautico, there is pressure to do things at the weekend, and so most Sundays we hobble off to one of Pernambuco’s several dozen dazzling beaches - down the coast to Tamandare or Calhetas or Carneiros, up the coast to Mangue Seco.

I don’t know if I should feel guilty about having such a not unpleasant life (I feel guilty about most things – shabby middle class upbringing (shabby middle class being a new social class I’ve heard about (or made up), because as we all know the middle class is too big to have any real meaning anymore and so needs to be sliced up into several pies, and shabby middle class seems to describe as well as any a comfortable enough childhood but one where papai made his heap of dubious bucks through corrupt policemanning, back breaking buildering and slum landlording and where papai and mamae were both from the interior Irlandes and so accustomed to sleeping several hundred to a bed and having the crapper a few kms or so from the back door and considered putting ketchup on their toast quite the delicacy), sexual activity of any sort, smoking, drinking) when around me there are lakes and rivers of poverty. I suppose I don’t, finally, because none of the above involves a great deal of money, or at least is not outside the reality of many people who live in Recife – the Ferrari cost r$4,000, which might make it the cheapest Ferrari in the world (if it was a Ferrari) and might still make it the cheapest 1992 Fiat Uno in Brazil, the house with the view of the sea is in a down at heel neighbourhood which may or may not be called something Branco, and the rent is reasonable, and the beaches, of course, are free. Plus I’m still wasting my time teaching a few good young Christian soldiers in Jordão for nowt, and hand out great dollops of change in the street whenever and wherever I’m asked for it. And I try to think about things as much as I can (which I’m sure must come as a great comfort to Brazil’s underprivileged) and not say things like well the problem with Brazil is the poor people you see, and I would vote Lula if I could, and Djilma too. Which just leaves the swimming club as my let them eat cake moment. Did anyone go to hell for swimming? And even if I do go to hell, it’s better than watching my booze belly grow until it blocks out the sun.

Though who cares about all that anyway. What is much more important is that Santa Cruz…only joking, ha ha. No Santa today, or for the foreseeable future, unfortunately. What is more important is that all is quite rotten in the state of the down at heel neighbourhood which may or may not be called something Branco. The Baiano and A Gata Do Bairro aren’t talking because The Baiano’s woman is insanely jealous of AGDB. AGDB tells me that she hates Woman With Big Glasses And Fat Husband because WWBGAFH is a squirrelly gossip and once told everyone that AGDB had sold her own virginal (and lesbyterian) daughter to another big shoe for sexual pleasure. AGDB (who seems rather over-involved in neighbourhood gossip) is suing Moustache for slander because Moustache got shipwrecked one night and stood in front of AGDB’s house announcing to sundry and all that AGDB was a common hussy who would sleep with anyone who had 10 centavos to spare and that AGDB’s husband, the tricolor, was a miserable cuckold. And then there’s Papai Noel, who loves nothing better than to leave presents in front of his neighbours’ houses – broken CDs, piss-stained mattresses, bags of rotting vegetables, coke bottles and the like. Tension seethes like tension around the little square and up the alley – though not so you’d notice, because most days everyone smiles and each other and says bom dia and tudo bem as required.

One night I’m ambling home (all this happened pre-Ferrari, you see) up the hill when AGDB (previously known as Mother Sururu, for the benefit of veteran readers) calls me over.

I’ve got something to say to you, she whispers, eyes scanning the street for Montagues or Capulets.

Ok, I say.

No, not now.

I sigh. We wait a bit. A large Eastern European country splits into several smaller republics. A number of world leaders serve a full term of office and seek re-election. A man who started reading The Idiot in 2005 reaches the last chapter. AGDB turns to me, then turns away again, several times.

Ok, ok. If you insist, I suppose I’ll have to tell you. People are saying things. More rolling and roving of eyeballs.


About you and my daughter. Note: AGDB’s daughter (not the big shoe daughter, the other one) is 17, chunky thighed and chipmunk toothed. One of my favourite people in the down at heel neighbourhood which may or may not be called something Branco and long-time pal and even part-time feeder of Guinness The Dog, but as yet the object of no man’s panting sexual desire (or at least not mine). Let’s call her Bilbo, for no good reason.

Bilbo? I say, trying to make my voice make the sound of eyebrows rocketing over the top of a forehead.

Yes, says AGDB, giving me a steely look. Now I know it’s not true, and I know you’re a good person, but I just want to confirm it. So. Are you eating my daughter? (Note: Eating is a direct translation from the Portuguese. Unpleasantness of expression therefore not entirely my fault).

Um, no, I say, trying but failing to picture Bilbo in a state of undress, and then struggling not to laugh.

I knew it, says AGDB. I knew that bitch WWBGAFH was just causing trouble. I’m going to break her face all up!

Bilbo comes out into the garden. She is wearing a baseball cap backwards and looks a bit like Eminem’s stockier 12 year old brother.

I’m going to go and have a shower, I say to AGDB and Bilbo. If you want to come over later, Bilbo, maybe we can…you know…(insert suggestive facial expression of choice).

There is laughter.

But still, someone had been saying it, on the basis that Bilbo comes to my house once a week when I’m out of the house for long periods of time and feeds Guinness. This, and the fact that I am a gringo and unmarried whilst being in my middle (ok, late) thirties and live alone, which makes me a more suspicious neighbour than Son of Sam, is enough. This, plus of course the mental fertility of those who have bog all to do all day except stand around and think about the lives of their neighbours.

AGDB’s husband, the tricolor, needs to sate his own curiosity. I’m going to ask you only once, and I already know the answer, and anyway I wouldn’t blame you if it was true (here passes a lewdish smirk across tricolor’s face), and I wouldn’t mind anyway because you’re a good lad, but I need to be sure. Are you eating my daughter?

The I wouldn’t blame you if it was true and I wouldn’t mind anyway because you’re a good lad might be my favourite bit of the story. Wouldn’t mind? That a grizzly 37 year old gringo was mucky touching and playing sweaty lying down crazy golf with your 17 year old daughter? Now there’s liberal parenting for you, or maybe it’s just Brazil.

For fuck’s sake, tricolor, I say, shouting and laughing at the same time. Of course I’m not. Bilbo? Are you crazy? (trying to sound incredulous but at the same time not too incredulous, because that would be rude).

Right then, says tricolor. And he marches off up the alley to confront WWBGAFH.

The next episode comes courtesy of the Fanautico. Preparing to take a post-coitus (Bilbo has not joined us) shower, she hears whispering in the alley. It is WWBGAFH and an unidentified neighbour.

He says he’s going to take me to court for saying things about his daughter! The corno tricolor! Well if he’s going to sue me, I’ll sue him first, and I’ll sue the gringo too!

Fanautico turns on the shower and the whispering drifts away down the alley.

Me! I say, when the Fanautico tells me the story. What the Santa have I done? The Fanautico shrugs and turns on the telly, where a novela is showing, though not one as interesting as this.

Though disappointingly for all involved the scandal soon fades away. WWBGAFH seems to accept that no-one was eating anyone, and nods sheepishly to me now whenever we pass in the street. AGDB tries to stretch things out a bit by suggesting that I and the Fanautico stopped talking to her and Bilbo after everything had settled down, because the Fanautico was jealous of Bilbo and believed the story. Bollox and balderdash, I tell AGDB, and she reluctantly lets the novela drizzle to an end. Reluctantly, I suppose, because there might not be all that much going on in the world of the down at heel neighbourhood which may or may not be called something Branco, and therefore scurrilous spicy gossip adds a bit of a fizzle to everyday life.

And then we all switch over the channel and watch something else.

Friday, 4 September 2009

After recent forays into the world of fiction with Disciple (which met with dizzying critical and popular acclaim – see comments on the previous entry) back to almost normal this week (thereby suggesting that this is somehow a regular, weekly exercise – ha!). Apart from Animal Farm most writing about animals is very bad indeed (think Marley and Me and Paul Auster’s Timbukfrickintu), cutesy and self-indulgent and generally shite, and maybe the only thing more boring than other people’s children is other people’s pets, but special mention today must be given to Guinness The Dog.

On Sunday, after scarfing down far too much barbecued sausage and cachaça (she’s a well taught dog), Guinness The Dog decides to hit the streets and see if there’s any action going down up on the corner. Guinness sees a special friend hanging around outside the bakery. Guinness gives chase. Guinness’s special friend legs it. A taxi comes roiling up the alley. Special friend and Guinness bowl under the taxi. Special friend comes out the other side. Guinness does not. I look under the car - it´s a dry county (ie. no Guinness. Do I have to explain everything?). I hear yelping from the bottom of the alley. I leg it home after Guinness, running down the hill away from the lighthouse, past the bakery where the teenagers stand around in the gloom doing nothing much at all, past the old men and women sitting idly outside their doors, down the steps and up the other steps and into the garden. A big cold moon hanging down, wind draughting up from the ocean, Guinness The Dog’s End Of Days. The remains of the barbecue are still dredging along, and Guinness is in the corner, whining quietly, her taxi-crushed tail all cut to ribbons, her left back paw bruised and beaten, but all in all, after a quick trip to the vet (and don’t drink and drive, kids, unless you have an injured dog in the back and know the back roads where the cops won’t get you), right as rain.

If that wasn’t enough, yesterday I decide to indulge a wounded dog a little and sit her on top of the three meter wall that surrounds the house (it’s not three meters inside the garden, if you get me, because the house is raised up, but three meters to the baked earth below on the outside). I turn my back. I hear a scrabbling of paws. And there goes Guinness The Dog, bouncing off the barbed wire that fronts the wall, flying through the air with a yelp, crumpling onto the hard packed sand an Everest or so below. That’s it, Guinness The Dog, I think. Guinness The Dog já era. Until Guinness The Dog stands up, shakes herself off, gives a small cough and goes off to bother the neighbours’ cats.

So in light of all this, Guinness The Dog having survived two near death (or at least two near broken dog parts) experiences, and lacking a religion to call my own, I’ve decided to pay tribute to what is clearly a dog possessing wisdom greater than our own and start a new religion.


In good Assembleia De Deus fashion I´m going to build a gigantic alabaster kennel with a gold plated roof and seats for 10,000 devotees in the front yard, and the faithful can come and pray where Guinness takes her sacred dumps. I’ll put a cash machine inside the front door as again following good ol´ADD scriptures getting into doggy heaven doesn’t come cheap. Perhaps there’s still a drop or two of canine blood on the barbed wire or the sand below where we can set up a shrine. Contrary to the teachings of Rome, The Church of Guinness The Dog will welcome homosexuals of all stripes and even women as for all I know Guinness may be a lesbiterian mutt herself, but will keep the hardcore happy by adopting the policies of the Christian Right and teaching that all sex is bad always so don´t do it. I will of course be the high priest of this brave new world, and expect the faithful to keep me and Guinness in fine style and allow me to do pretty much as I wish with their firstborn.

Though being from where I´m from, I´m going to need someone to set up a breakaway sect in a few years, and then we can all go about killing each other for a few decades/centuries. As reasons for an irrevocable split can I suggest something like those of the rebel church will prefer their God to say wouf instead of woof, and will choose to see their God as having whiskers that are long in place of whiskers that verily are not long, and if you like your God with whiskers long then you should do your damnedest not to find yourself of a Saturday night in a bar where people pray to a God short-of-whisker, because the whole issue of whisker length might be enough to have someone put a shotgun to the back of your kneecaps and squeeze the trigger.