Thursday, 29 October 2009

In the preface to the second edition of De L’Amour, Marie-Henrie Beyle (who presumably opted for the pseudonym Stendhal as he was terribly embarrassed about having a girl’s name) confesses to having written for what he imagined to be a reading public of about 100 people, or as he called them, the happy few. Now with over two hundred people accidentally stumbling across this blog whilst looking for or, I realise I am, compared to ol’ Marie Stendhal at least, something of a Dan Brown or even a Tony Parsons. This makes me very happy, but as former buccaneering, moustachioed Manchester City left back Neil “Dissa” Pointin once said, with great power comes great responsibility, and as a result I feel under tremendous pressure to entertain my vast readership. Which I won’t be able to, of course. So bollox to it – more of the same old same old coming up, probably. (And no, of course I haven’t read the preface to the second edition of De L’Amour. But an excellent trick for those wishing to appear more intelligent than they actually are is to read at least one clever book, in this case Machado De Assis’s Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, and especially the introduction or footnotes. These will undoubtedly have been written by a literary critic or if not An Intelligent And Well Read Person, who will probably have chucked in as many references to other clever books as he can possibly think of. All that remains is for the astute reader to refer to these clever books in a way that suggests he has read them many times and knows them intimately, and that frankly he is rather surprised that the person he is speaking to has not).

Speaking of Machado De Assis, all this self-deprecating irony aimed at the size of one’s readership is in itself very machadean (in a way that is right up there with the moment when possibly gin or at least coffee soaked presenter of Channel 5 (UK)’s very late night baseball programme, Tommy Boyd, informed the viewing tens that he wasn’t going to apologise for accidental on-air profanity as “there was no-one bloody watching anyway”). In fact all that I really need to do is write a bit more about fim de siecle or at least start of siecle Brazilian social mores, bung in a bit more post modern intertextuality (and jokes), and in a hundred years someone might well refer to this blog as a tour de force of surprising modernity.

But for now only day-to-day infamy and pleasant tedium remain, so today’s story is basically What I Did At The Weekend (In Which The Argument And I Meet A Famous Person). I’m bored, a little, of calling The Fanautico, um, The Fanautico, so from now on I’m going to call her The Argument. Not that we argue a lot, The Argument and I, but still. We argue sometimes, like most young (arf arf) folk, and anyway it makes me laugh to call her The Argument. What her opinion is on the subject is I have yet to inquire.

So anyway. We have quite the weekend, The Argument and I. On Friday we meet in hustling bustling rockin’ and rollin’ downtown Recife, and the sun is shining and the sky is blue. Rain feels to me now a bit like what the world was like before all this new fangled technology we have now (the internet, mobile phones, cars etc.) – something I can kind of remember but only in a very hazy way. We have a cheap and cheerful lunch in the garden of a nice little self-service restaurant just off Conde Da Boa Vista, and then start gustily slurping down the palavras - The Argument is not a professional drinker such as I, but she has her moments. We keep on necking palavras until the shadows stretch all the way down the block and the streets fill with people on their way home from work and then we go to Cais De Santa Rita, where we meet my good friend Suicidal of Jordão. Raul Seixas plays on the stereo, we suck on maybe the best caldinhos in Recife and continue on the palavras. At about nine The Argument goes off to meet her friends in Recife Antigo for more palavras and dancing fun. Not always being one for dancing fun I decide to call it a night, and I and SoJ head tipsily home to our respective casas.

Saturday sees the same motley threesome lolling on the beach at Calhetas. It is the first time SoJ has been to Calhetas or any of the beaches on the litoral sul. SoJ is 30 and lives around 20 minutes drive from such beaches. But he is SoJ, so. The white tipped surf crashes on the beach, the sun twinkles through the palm trees, the sky is an aching blue, we order mountains of food and palavras and wiggle our toes in the sand. What do you think, I ask SoJ. S’alright, he says. Only when I see something like this really I just think about what’s missing in my life. How it could have been different. This is how it usually goes with SoJ these days. Try whistling a happy tune, I say, you might feel better.

On Sunday afternoon I ease the aching sadness in my heart and take in Santa’s game in the semi-professional Copa Pernambuco, and in a way it’s nice to sit in the half empty stands and actually concentrate on the game, rather than get caught up the sound and fury of grander days. And Santa – woo frickin´hoo – win 5-0!!!

And! On Sunday night I propose to The Argument that we go out. We try up on the hill but the Alta Da Sé is chock full of teenage boys with their shirts off and teenage girls who might not have even had a shirt in the first place and cars with stereo systems the size of Ecuador and the nice bars are already battening down the hatches. So we wander around a bit and end up in a gringo-ish bar down near the Praça Do Carmo. Which is all well and good – a bit pricier than say, the Beco Da Fome, but finely chilled palavras and a gentler air. So we sit and we drink and we eat and we feel fine and then at about 11pm a smallish young man comes in with a rangier, slightly awry looking companion and two middle aged women. It’s Matheus Nachtergaele!, whispers The Argument. And it is – maybe Brazil’s bestest actor and star turn of my favourite film ever, Amarelo Manga, which along with Taxi Driver might be the most perfect recapturing of the wrecked soul of a city (Recife – where else?) that I’ve seen. For those in the market for the recapturing of the soul of a very non-wrecked city, of course, there’s also London with Notting Hill and Love Actually. Thereby proving the adage (and I think it was Dissa´s Salford Rottweiler successor I´ve lost that Terry Phelan, Bring back that Terry Phelan that said it) that everyone and everything gets the art they deserve.

Anyway. There’s lots of kissy kissy going on with Matheus N and his companion, and the companion is extremely impassioned about something or other and gesticulates wildly with his cigarette. There are hugs and punches on the arm and slaps on the back and almost a bit of a fight and it all looks a bit like the kind of you’remybestmateyouare drunken epiphanies with wearysome friends that I have come to know very well myself. I hear the word fucking genius mentioned a few times, and also the name Claudio. Claudio! So the companion (who is dressed a bit like one of the Beastie Boys, with golf trousers and red Converse trainers – not a common look in Recife) can only be Claudio Assis, director of Amarelo Manga!

The Argument and I are by now terribly excited. I’m terribly excited, I say to The Argument. So am I, says The Argument. Still we are elegant young (ho, ho) people, so we don’t look directly at Matheus and Claudio, instead fixing our attention on the intrictate flower patterning of our table cloth and talking about other things - what are the women’s bogs like? Alright. What about the men’s? They’re alright too. Toilet wouldn’t flush though. Oh. And all the time tremendous high jinks at the next table, where food arrives by the truckload and whiskey flows like water. At one point I think Claudio Assis is a little sick on his shoes. Though we’ve all been a little sick on our shoes at one time or another, I suppose.

Anyway, eventually The Argument and I can stretch it out no longer. We pay our bill and wander past the grown-ups table. And I can’t contain myself! Sorry, I say, knees trembling a bit, I don’t mean to bother you. Claudio Assis belches and lurches to his feet. Come on Claudio, says one of the middle-aged women, and escorts him staggeringly away, to where – a taxi, a gutter, her generously bosomed charms – only they know. Matheus N smiles nervously. No problem, he says, looking around for the waiter. Or security. Um, I, um, I really admire your work, I say. And I want to leave it at that. I really do. But I can’t. I love you! Fucking Amarelo fucking Manga! Jesus! I think I punch the air. Matheus N smiles and grips his cutlery tightly. You just missed the director, he says. I know, I say, and I want to tell him about the events of entry dated 2nd May 2008, when I gave a copy of Your Life Is An Impossibility to a grizzled old farmer who promised he would deliver it to Claudio, who was supposedly working in an artist’s commune on grizzled old farmer’s, um, farm. But I don’t (thank Christ). The Argument, at least, retains some sense of propriety. What are you doing in Recife? she asks him. Making another film with Claudio. About a poet. John The Rat. (I think – things were getting a bit hazy by this time). The Argument loses her sense of propriety completely. He’s a writer! she squeals, pointing at me. I smile. Like a gimp. Matheus N smiles back. No-one seems to have much to say. We apologise again, just for politeness, and say good luck and good bye. At the door we turn and wave. Matheus N waves too. He didn’t hate us! I say to The Argument. I am exultant! Not to be hated by a person I admire! I look down at The Argument. She is walking-sleeping, her head nestled in the crook of my arm.

Friday, 23 October 2009

I’d pictured it a little differently – maybe a cheesily grinning President Lula shaking my hand and handing me a gold-plated Brazilian identity card, while all my Brazilian heroes (to wit, Carlinhos Paraiba, former trojan Santa meio-campista now wasting his time with Coritiba in Serie A as opposed to gloriously representing Santa against various collections of plumbers, bus drivers and garis in the Copa Pernambuco, Nelson Rodrigues, Milton Nascimento (actually he’s out because he’s cruzeirense), Tom Zé, Faustão, Xuxa, a few others who I can’t quite remember now) and a massed crowd of o povo Brasileiro cheered wildly. Lula would be doing this in recognition of my services to the Brazilian people – or in other words writing this blog, telling any moaning upper middle class Brazilian I come across to shut his/her cakehole and that there’s plenty of other places in the world (even in (gasp!) Europe) that are just as banjaxed as Brazil, being tricolor, because everyone knows Lula is really O Mais Querido despite pretending to be corinthiano, and being co-founder of the world’s least successful voluntary project, more of which (maybe) later.

In the end though, its all quite perfunctory and not half as interesting as I had planned (which should perhaps be the title for this blog). I go to the policia federal at the airport, tell them my story, sit nervously for a few minutes until someone says ah bollox to it we may as well let him in after all its only the pissing amnesty who bleedin’ cares (or words to that affect) and four years of (all entirely legal) visa shenanigans of various stripes have come to an end, and, thanks to nice Mr Lula and nice Mr Ken Ho (I think), I am the proud owner of a two-year provisional visa which should then, provided I don’t decide to take up a career as an international drug trafficker or abuser of infants, become permanent.

Woo-frickin-hoo. The only thing is that having always been something of a stranger to permanence of any kind (whether in love, living arrangements, or my various not very glorious careers), I get a funny, twitchy kind of feeling in my pants when I think about being here forever. Though of course I’d always planned to be here, um, forever – it’s just that now it might really be forever, well, forever seems a mighty long time. And – and this one’s harder to understand, or maybe it’s not – Brazil looks a bit different now too, and the what the hell am I doing here moments are coming thick and fast.

What the hell am I doing here moment number 1: The weekend after National Day of the Visa (there’s a national day for everything else in Brazil, including dentists, bus drivers and commercial workers, so why not?) The Fanautico drags me off to Itapoama for a weekend of sun, sea and shandies at a friend´s beach house. Though really it’s a weekend of cachaça, cachaça and cachaça from sun up to sun down to sun up again. On Sunday night we ease on down the road to a clutch of grim little bars huddled under the trees – up ahead is Brennand (surely mentioned before – recifense phallic sculptor and owner of half the city) family land – as usual the crickets chirrup and the moon flits through the trees and it feels – apart from the 4x4s belting down the highway, that we might be in the middle of witchy primeval forest. Only – the Brazilians amongst us (i.e. everybody except me) start gyrating and twirling the minute we get there, despite the music being two old cheesers with cowboy hats and epic moustaches on keyboards and vocals, and no-one seems to want to talk about anything, only shout and slap each others’ neatly packaged (the girls, that is) arses and drink and call for more drink and more drink and more drink. I stand glumly for a bit, feeling thoroughly out of things, yearning for a quiet pint in a morbidly silent boozer in Crystal Palace, Dundrum Bay or Whalley Range. And I think – WTHAIDH? Until I find a novel solution to the problem – drink more, and faster.

What the hell am I doing here moment number 2 (in which it is revealed that slavery never really went away): I may be a honky but I´m hung like a donkey, sings Shaun William Ryder as The Ferrari crashes over rocks and leaps across craters on Avenida Getulio Vargas. Then I get tired of Shaun William Ryder’s shouty shouty snarly snarly and turn on JC/CBN. JC/CBN is a bit like Radio 4, except it isn’t really, because it has commercials with songs that go Pitu Cola ooh-ooh, Pitu Cola aah-aah, which does nothing for one’s moments of intellectual reflection. A man comes on and talks earnestly about do’s and don’ts in a job interview. He sounds like he has a degree in Science of Workplace Dynamics or something equally handy (to quote, indirectly, Paul Calf). Whatever you do, he says, don’t ask any questions in your interview. The interview is for the employer to find out about you, not for you to find out about the employer. And you certainly don’t ask about holidays, or benefits. You can find out about those things from your colleagues when you start work. For some reason my knee jerks violently and hits the steering wheel and The Ferrari narrowly misses an oncoming 910 Rio Doce – Piedade bus. Meanwhile the presenter of the radio show is mmm-mmming his agreement with our Doctorate in Ergonomic Office Furniture and thanking him earnestly for his advice, and yes, I know most minimum salary workers in Brazil don’t have a hell of a lot of employment options and aren’t likely to find themselves headhunted by Ernest Young or Price Waterhouse Cooper, but still……

What the hell am I doing here moment number 3: Actually there isn’t really a number 3, just a general feeling of weariness. Because it sometimes gets tiring, living in Brazil, in another country, where for the Foreign Johnny many things that the locals see as normal and expected are new and not expected and as annoying as hell. Debating strategies are one such example – a debate between two Brazilians generally involves both individuals talking quite loudly and repeating themselves as much as possible and if at all possible speaking in a continuous stream to prevent the other person from speaking at all, with occasional breaks used for turning away and invoking support from onlookers by mocking one’s opponent, perhaps by calling him a corno, or cuckold. This is frustrating for me because I like to argue and in Norn’ Iron, at least, it is customary to at least allow one’s opponent to express his point of view before calling him a silly feckin’ eejit and breaking a bottle over his head.

More examples - that I have to pick up my bog-trotting The Clampetts meet The Adams Family neighbours’ rubbish and carry it up to the dumping spot at the top of the road. That when I went to a nice beach ™ on Sunday we sat in a bar which played ear-crushing forro eletrico all day, which rather spoiled the sound of the wind rustling in the palm trees. That it’s bloody hot all the time (actually I like this). That I live very close to the sea and see it every day (actually I like this too).

(And all these (hottness and sea excepted, naturally) are also proof of one of the lowest parts of the gringo experience - that when living in another country it´s hard to separate the individual from the mass. If a roaring white van with BNP stickers on the windscreen runs over my foot in London or Belfast or Manchester, for example, I think, you f***ing c***. If the same thing happens in Recife (replacing BNP stickers with Sport stickers perhaps), I think you f***ing Brazilian c***. Which is wrong, obviously, but I think pretty unavoidable).

Moan moan moan.

I suppose what it is really is that one just needs to go home every once in a while, to matar saudades and to count one’s blessings and to remember that with an old small car, a small young dog, an old small house, and a small young girlfriend (though not that small or young, your honour) I have pretty much all that I need or want here in Recife. I’ll tell you the results of investigative research into this particular theory sometime in 2010, after I get back from a month in England and Norn’ Iron (and it’s amazing what you can buy with a year’s worth of teacher’s salary in Brazil these days – half a new car, half a small house (though probably only in Ibura or Santa Amaro), a return ticket from Recife to London). And I must admit I’m looking forward to it, a bit – to walk across Crystal Palace Park in the freezing bloody cold, to spend a few hours in the wonderful Bookseller Crow On The Hill (there’s a link to the website below), to spend r$16 on the 30 minute journey into central London and then r$20 on a pint of warm flat beer and r$24 on a pack of cigarettes which you can’t frickin’ smoke anyway then talking about property prices and amazing new bands for three hours before being told (rather rudely) by the barman that at 11pm it’s time to go home. And, of course, on any tube or train journey, observing the famous London stare – gazing just above the person opposite’s shoulder, just to the right or left of the ear – so that said starer doesn’t have to expend the effort to look away but at the same time sure as hell isn’t going to acknowledge fellow passenger in any way.

These visits home – one every two years, roughly, have divided my time here in Brazil quite nicely. The first, after six months, had me gushing on about how wonderful Brazil was, a land of freedom and opportunity and happiness where everybody smiled all the time (and all the birds were well fit ‘innit, of course). This was in the days, of course, of The Ex-Girlfriend and all those fun and games, and when I knew bog all about anything in Brazil (what’s changed, some might say). The second, two years after landfall, saw me older and a bit (but not much) wiser about Brazil and its disappointments but still cheesily passing out Chico Buarque and Joao Gilberto CDs to my not very interested friends. Now things are what they are – no longer a frothy tourist or even novice wannabe Brazilian (a fruitless task anyway), more a slightly jaundiced gringo from a rather small and confusing country (just try explaining Norn Iron’s relationship with the UK and the Black South to a Brazilian) who still believes in the essential rightness of Brazil (which is that people like each other, generally, and are not repelled by the company of others) vis-à-vis the essential wrongness of countries which have lost this quite, duh, fundamental human quality.

It’s a bit like your bird innit – after six months the first haze of sex and happiness glows strongly and colours everything. After two years we are more than aware of the cracks that are rivening their way through our little paradise. After four years perhaps we reach a peaceable kind of contentment where there are moments (1, 2 and all of 3 above, for example) where we would happily strangle our life partner (or country) of choice, but still, on the whole, are happy and remember enough of the reasons of why we loved said partner or country in the first place to keep us trucking on and trucking on and trucking on. Basically – you’re happy if you’re happy, and you’re sad if you’re sad, and you could be happy in downtown Kabul when it all starts kicking off if the chick in the dayglo burkha you like gives you a cheeky wink and you could be sad in a five bedroom penthouse apartment on Avenida Boa Viagem if you’re not quite as rich as you want to be.

And here endeth the sermon, as always prefixed with the words but what would I know?

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

They’ve closed down the Beco Da Fome, and torn off its roof, which is a shame, because it was one of the grottiest of downtown Recife’s many grotty drinking holes, and therefore one of the finest places on God’s (and yes, I have noticed that I mention God rather a lot for a heretic) green earth to slake a thirst. It is/was nothing very special – six or seven bars crammed together in a kind of shopping arcade, but the beer was cheap and the music and the women loud and terrible, and there was a cheerful kind of camaraderie to the whole place.

It has some kind of relevance for me too. I last drank there on a Friday night a couple of weeks ago (which in a dubious claim to fame would make me one of the last thousand or so people to drink in the Beco Da Fome, at least as it was). As the latest tilt at windmills in my quixotic crusade to make it into proper grown-up print with shiny covers, I thought I’d write an article about the trials and tribulations of football clubs in the generally impoverished nordeste of Brazil (vis a vis their wealthier cousins down in Sao Paulo and Rio and Porto Alegre) with particular mention going to, you guessed it, Santa Cruz Futebol Clube, and with a profile of the Inferno Coral thrown in as a cheeky little crackers and cheese platter at the end (torcida organizadas are big business in the nordeste). Inspiration for this came from a variety of sources, the most obvious being my own hapless interest in the subject, and also last January’s or February’s scandal-mongering article on the subject in the Diario Do Pernambuco - “They’ll kill your pets! They’ll rape your daughters! They’ll cut the heads off your rose bushes? They’ll cut the heads off your daughters and kill your rose bushes and rape your pets! They’re the Inferno Coral!” being roughly the gist of it.

So I thought to call up some of the nice chaps in the Inferno shop and invite them out for a few jars and a bit of a chinwag. I like the Inferno shop – there are always a few malevolent glances bouncing around when you walk in, and it’s a bit dark and moody, but by the time you get to the counter and are vaguely recognised it’s smiles all round and a friendlier and more professional service than you get in many of Recife’s major banks. Oddly it’s one of the places in town where I feel least like a gringo.

I’ve never been interviewed before, says Colin, Inferno commandant, gazing off somewhere over my shoulder, moony as a schoolgirl, when I ask him. (Colin, of course, isn´t really called Colin). I hasten to explain that it’s not quite Time or even Veja, and I’ll be lucky if anyone wants to buy it when I’ve finished. Colin continues to stare into the middle distance, dreaming perhaps of explaining Inferno’s moral stance on violence on Domingao with Faustão or Jo Soares.

This, as it happens, is all a few months ago. I see Colin at Santa games and tell him I’ve nearly finished the article and I’ll call him soon to do the Inferno bit. He introduces me to his chums and tells everyone I’m a tricolor doente from Holland. Or sometimes it´s Germany. Or Albania. I haven’t really the energy to correct him. Eventually, and ironically enough, what with Santa’s adventures in Serie D now distant taillights fading into the black (10 points for anyone who knows the band) , we arrange to meet.

Now it’s a long time since we’ve heard from The Ex-Girlfriend, provider of much early glamour and pizzazz in these otherwise lacklustre scribblings. But The Fanautico has certain issues with The Ex-Girlfriend, perhaps understandably – there is a long and complicated past to take into account - though the idea of romantic dillydallying with TEG now gives off about as much heat for me as a plate of yesterday’s rice and beans. Anyway, this makes co-TEG-fraternising a bit tricky. So I take the opportunity of being downtown to stop by TEG’s place of work, a jogo do bicho stall near the Beco. We head up to the Praça Maciel Pinheiro and hurl down a few palavras. Everything is nice – TEG is nice, the palavras are nice, the evening is nice, the fruit sellers and the street kids with their bottles of glue jammed in their little mouths are nice. We wait for Colin. He wanders past, half an hour late. I’m just going home quickly, he says, I’ll be back in a bit. I wonder is he going to change into his Inferno branded tux.

We wait. TEG stops drinking palavras. I don’t. We wait some more. TEG makes her excuses (a jealous-ish boyfriend waiting at home, though how jealous can one be if one in fine Pernambucan fashion romanced one’s current love for four months before revealing one’s rather spoken-for-with-someone-else marital status) and leaves. The palavras keep coming. Eventually, an hour and a half late (another fine Pernambucan tradition), Colin arrives. Finish your beer, he says. We’re not staying here. I do as requested. Colin speeds off. I hurry after him. Where are we going? I ask.

Moody silence. I feel a bit twitchy.

I needn’t have worried, of course. We go to the Beco Da Fome, and we drink. There are six or so Inferno huddled around the table, and also Jeremy, a senior member of Forca Jovem Vasco, up from Rio to spend his hols on the beach at Boa Viagem and hang out with the Inferno. We talk of the good things about torcida organizadas – the community projects (Atletico Mineiro’s Galoucora have created around two hundred such schemes, ranging from mai-tai and capoeira classes to crèches and blood donation drives), the sense of belonging that the organisations give to kids who might otherwise have very little reason not to involve themselves in drugs and violence (not mentioning of course that some of them involve themselves in drugs and violence via, um, the organizadas), the fantastic support that the organizadas give to their football clubs, the complicated system of allies and foes that spreads throughout Brazil (Jeremy’s reason for being in Recife – Inferno are allied to, amongst others, Galoucora (you can spot a big Inferno flag at any of Atletico’s home games in Belo Horizonte), Bahia, Vasco, and Fortaleza).

And we talk about the bad, which is, obviously the criminality and the violence. And this is where it all gets tricky, because what does one say or think about things? Yes, violence is A Very Bad Thing, and can never (or at least hardly ever) be condoned. And torcida organizadas are responsible for a lot of violence. But. The majority of organizada violence is carried out amongst willing participants – Inferno will have a scrap with Jovem Sport, and everyone involved will be there because they want to be. There will be few, if any, innocent bystanders hurt.

And thinking about this, I remember a Sunday afternoon in my early days in Recife. I and The Ex-Girlfriend From Santa Maria Da Boa Vista Near Petrolina (or at least I think Santa Maria Da Boa Vista was the name of the place) had been to watch Santa and Nautico at Aflitos. It was the dog days at the end of the Campeonato Pernambucano that year and both Santa and Nautico were terrible and no-one much cared about the result. Strolling back to my apartment in Boa Vista we noticed a gang, maybe 300 strong, of Inferno Coral coming up behind us. Panic ensued. People huddled nervously together for safety at the bus stops. Needles scratched across jukebox records. The wind picked up and tossed the trees around and horses started eating other horses. TEGFSMDBVNP quivered gently beside me. We crossed the road and stopped at a taxi rank. You’d better stay here, chum, said the taxi driver, it’s not safe. TEGFSMDBVNP heartily agreed. Hmmmmm, I thought. I hadn’t met the Inferno before, but had some first (or at least second) hand knowledge of how football hooliganism (Salford/Moss Side branches) worked in the UK. I suspected the Inferno weren’t really out to kick seven bells out of innocent passers-by (particularly those wearing Santa Cruz shirts). So. Bollox, I said, and went to haul TEGFSMDBVNP off down Rua Do Principe, where I had fun and games of a different stripe in mind. Are you crazy, said the taxi driver, they’ll rape your girlfriend and they’ll slice you up and kill you! Which can only lead one to one thought, can it not, which is – what?!@?$??? Has there ever, ever, ever been a case of a group of 300 torcida organizadas setting randomly upon two people not connected with another team or another organizada and beating them until they were deadish? Do torcida organizadas regularly carry out 300 strong gang rapes? Of course not/of course they don’t. So we headed off, and the group passed us as we went, singing a fairly unpleasant song about Jovem Sport´s curious interest in anal penetration, and at the same time they passed a middle aged woman talking on her mobile and paid her no attention at all. A large number of the Inferno turned and stared at TEGFSMDBVNP’s strapping bosom, I must confess, but that was the extent of the malice and also it was a crime which I’d been guilty of myself a few times and so could not stand in judgement.

I know this is all defending the indefensible, and I don’t mean to, but things are often made out to be worse than they are and sitting at the table in the Beco Do Fome it was hard for me to feel holier than thou. Or even thee. All at the table had been involved in trying to rid Inferno of the worst of its criminal elements (those who like to mug other Santa fans after the games, for example) and none seemed to have much appetite for violence. No-one admitted to having broken the windows or the chairs on a city bus, though they probably had in their misspent youths. The worst of their crimes was fighting with Jovem Sport, which none of them did very often, and which mostly seem to be bravado-ish bluster anyway. And furthermore a distinction needs to be made between those who are genuinely part of the core group of Inferno, and go to every game home and away, and attend meetings and bang drums and carry flags and spend most of their lives in the Inferno shop or the sede out at Arruda, and those (Hello, Inferno Ibura!) who wear the shirt as a badge of honour and use the gang mentality of football as an excuse to go on crime spree rampages before and after games (had it been a ragtag mob such as this we wouldn’t have wandered merrily off down Rua Do Principe that day). In the end, while I can’t pretend it’s all harmless fun (it’s not, because people get scared and sometimes hurt and even killed and babies cry), while part of me wanted to stand up and say my-goodness-how-terrible-I’m-absolutely-outraged, equally part of me felt that young men having the occasional rubadubdub with other young men who are equally booze and testosterone fuelled and equally mad-fer-it, and in the form I have described above, and excluding any kind of real intimidation and terror against members of the public, might not, in the end, be the worst thing on earth. Oh dear. This probably makes me a very bad person, or at the very least a pasty fleshed gringo doing his feeble best to hang out with the tough kids at school. In which case – sorry, sorry, sorry.

Anyway. The night grew late and they started putting the chairs on the tables in the Beco. The air was thick with smoke and the floor sticky with spilt palavras. Half of the crew headed off to Arruda, to the Inferno HQ, where there was a party going on. I was invited, and while I considered going (purely for investigative journalist purposes, of course), I am (a) old (b) as previously mentioned, somewhat pasty and (c) also as previously mentioned, and more than once - a gringo, and so thought a nice book and a cup of cocoa in bed the best option. Still time for a few more palavras with Colin, though, and the talk ranges far and wide, as the talk usually does in such circumstances. We even agree, if I remember correctly, that it is time the Inferno (with a potential membership of up to maybe 15,000, if they managed to get everyone registered) got themselves organised politically, and marched on Boa Viagem (in protest of what we don’t decide).

And then it’s time to go home.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The alcoholism of the pen were five strung-together words I thought of the other day, and go some way to expressing the need to write something even when one doesn’t have much to write about. Especially when one (and what’s with all this calling oneself (aaargh!) one? Christ if I’d used one this much when I was a Belfast school kid I’d have been hanged from the lampposts for being a pompous English nancy boy) realises that one (ouch!) has a huge audience of up to 53 readers. Even if about twenty of those “readers” are the author revisiting his own work, and probably two or three other odd souls visiting the author’s work ten or so times in order to get to the end of one of these interminable blog entries at work during brief intervals when the boss is on the crapper.

Funny though how a blog can take over one’s (ooof!) writing life, even when there is the 2011 Booker Prize Winning Novel to be completed and several contenders for the Best American (or Irish, or British, or whoever will take them) Short Story to be polished up, and of course an epic study on the theme of migration, exile, memory and gringoism to be getting on with (as per previous interminable entry).

Anyway. So proving the theorem that one (gads!) must write even when one (uurk!) has nothing to write about - occasionally a young man’s thoughts turn to love, and while mine haven’t, walking of a morning, and then again of a night, with Guinness The Dog up through the old town of Olinda puts one in mind of the romantics and ol’ Wordsworth (in a funny way) and daffodils and lonely clouds. In a recifense fashion, of course.

So with nothing to do or say on a Friday, and no-one to do or say it with, I decide to passear with our cachaça swigging friend once in the morning and then take another, buy-one-get-one-free clone walk in the late afternoon/early evening.

And how different everything it is as the sky grows dark, how different from the brilliant blue cupola of the sky, and its heat, in the morning. The air now is soft and smoky, and there is more traffic, but not that much, and the cars rolling up the hill climb slowly and quietly. In front of the big blocky Igreja Da Sé the chummily menacing tour guides are waiting for the tour buses to arrive (though they seem never to really come) and there’s a juicy hint of marijuana hanging in the air. The crickets are chirruping up a racket and the electric light bulbs strung up over the tapioca stands are on, and everything behind them fades into dark greens and browns and blacks. Small groups of people stand and sit around, talking quietly and eating and drinking. Further up, in front of the old Saint Gertrude’s College building, we stop and look down on Recife – the black river snaking down towards the city, the streams of cars heading home, their lights red and yellow pinpricks in the gloom, the dark ocean to the left. Far away, downtown and in Boa Viagem and the middle class neighbourhoods around Aflitos and Espinheiros, the lights are coming on in the apartments and the houses and the bars and restaurants, and all I can think of (apart from oooooh that’s nice) is Bonnie Prince Billy singing Gulf Shores - and soon the restaurants will open up, and soon the bars will light their lights, something something something something, lonely things will come tonight.

In the nordeste there is a sweetness and a light to the air, a kind of tapestry of warmth and illumination, thick with the smell of the mata atlântica and the sea and maybe the wood and the paint of the old houses and food cooking somewhere and a bonfire burning leaves and the soft wind off the ocean, that makes it unlike any other air, any other light, that I have seen. And as I stand there I think how interesting (or not) it is that early pioneers chose where they might settle on just such a basis - soft air, sweet sunlight, fresh water – whereas today we so easily discount such things. True – we don’t really need sunlight and fresh water and good soil to survive, at least physically, for we can easily pipe the water and ship the products of the soil and catch a plane to get closer to the sunlight – but don’t we need them, at least a little, for the chirpiness of the soul? I’ve come to think that maybe we do, or at least that it’s easier to be happy when you are surrounded by all this than when you are not.

Moments like these, sunsets like these, bring memory rushing back into brightly lit relief, and things, places long past now flash through my mind – utterly random yet slightly linked – long bus journeys across Minas and Bahia and points north, drinking beer on the balcony of a cheap hotel in São Luis and looking out over the river (or is it the sea?) at the lights of the town, the Santuário Caraça near Belo Horizonte, where I once spent a weekend watching the priests feeding the wolves down from the mountains and guzzling cheap red wine alone in my room/monk’s cell, the way the light ebbed away over the scrubby dirt football pitch at the end of the street in sweetly ordinary Bancarios in João Pessoa, where I lived with two people who were and are even now friends but, still, felt very much alone (perhaps because João Pessoa is a place which might make anyone feel alone) - yet strangely happy. I remembered a few people, too, friends, family, the usual plethora of Ex-Girlfriends of every stripe, but that was missing the point. For the connection between the past and now was the quietness of the moment and of being alone, and how for the most part, really, that’s when I’m happiest and when everything feels the rightest and when my thoughts flow the freest.

And then it’s time to wander home, only we take a different route, because as everyone knows you should always take a different route home, and we go down past the Casa De Noca macaxeira and carne do sol restaurant (though I am aching for a palavra* or two in the Bodega De Veio) and along a narrow little street where there are children playing in the half-dark, and up the steps towards the college and then down towards home, and in front of us the great space of the sea shines black and silver.

And that’s it – no pei-pei-pei, no Inferno Coral, no comparing God to an Ant King, just a bit of whimsy and self-indulgence. But can’t an old man (or is it a young man? I can’t always remember) just take a walk with his dog every now and again?

It’ll get better next week, I promise.

*Palavras of course meaning beers - such excellent wordplay courtesy of the esteemed Jaime, owner of Jaime’s Bar, a hovelly little slot in the wall in Santo Antonio, Belo Horizonte, where Jim Jones of Jonestown Massacre fame allegedly once drank and which is maybe the greatest bar in the world - and mention of which is long, long overdue. Why the greatest bar in the world? A clientele made up entirely of obstreperous old men, cheap and nicely chilled palavras, homemade cachaça doled out liberally when the moment is right, scratchy MPB tapes and CDs (and even the radio sometimes) for a soundtrack. No big TV screens and no bloody food, because as any serious drinker will tell you food with beer is like a game of darts while making sweeet luuurvin´ to yo´ woman – an extremely unwelcome distraction. Brylcreemed, effusive, wizened and not very tall Jaime’s memories of Mr. Jones? That of all unsuspecting neighbours commenting on surprise serial killers and leaders of mass suicide religious cults discovered living next door – nice bloke, didn’t say much, kept himself to himself. So I try hard to be friendly to my neighbours now, just so they don’t say the same thing about me.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The mosquitoes don’t bother with me any longer. I am old meat now, says Brown in Graham Greene’s The Comedians (or at least he says something like that – I can’t find the quote right now). Brown is a man to be admired –he has elected to remain in an often difficult foreign country (Haiti) for no particular reason, or at least to remain after his reason for remaining has long gone, and now spends much time on his veranda drinking rum and gazing out into the darkness (speaking for oneself this is a lifestyle that can easily be identified with).

The Comedians is one of those books that might well be about Brazil even though it’s not about Brazil (Peter Robb believes Nostromo is another) and certainly it’s not that hard to imagine the chapter where the American Smith is wheedled by the Minister of the Interior of Greene’s Haiti taking place a bit closer to home (home, now, always, probably – being Brazil).

Though re-reading the book now I was struck by how much more terror there might be in a life and a world which was once civil and orderly (like Haiti in the book) or at least that once enjoyed a moment in the sun - until the phone stops to ring and there is darkness in the streets and there are no more guests in the hotels and fear circles through the town - than there might be in a country like Brazil which in some ways has never really grown up. By growing up I mean perhaps having faith and conviction in the idea of living in a single, unified society where things generally function as they are meant to and where there is a general idea of social responsibility and where a great many things exist for the common good, all of which should be overseen by a government that isn´t entirely self-interested. It could be argued that Brazil has never had exactly that, or if it has it hasn´t had it for very long.

This sounds a very negative thing to say about Brazil though it’s not intended to be. I believe quite strongly that everything everywhere will come around to pretty much the same place eventually, and that while Brazil might be a long way behind say England (a miserable place to live if ever there was one) in terms of social programmes and public order and ideas of effective government, it is not really that far behind at all (maybe twenty years or so), particulary given that England has had a hundred year head start in the concept of a government that exists to look after its people and isn´t there simply because being president is a pretty good job where you can lock up people you don’t like and get loads of freebies and can stuff as much cash down your underpants as you fancy. And if and when it does catch up then Brazil will be (as it probably already is anyway) a much finer place to live than England has ever been, generally because people here don´t entirely abhor the idea of coming into contact with others.

I feel I can come out with preposterous statements like this because I attended perhaps the greatest pre-Brazil training programme of them all, which was growing up in 1980’s Northern Ireland, where everything was a complete bollox of bloodshed and crookedness and black comedy and no-one ever believed it would be any different - until suddenly it was. Brazil is like that – I know that when I get to the place I am going this afternoon the playboyzinhos and patricinhas will be in uproar because of the ENEM university entry exams (which were due to be on Saturday but have been cancelled due to an enterprising janitor (I don’t care if it wasn’t a janitor – making him a janitor sounds better) being caught yesterday creeping out of the building with a Xerox of the questions in his hand. As a result 4 million or so studious Brazilians will have to wait another 45 days to do the test. To pre-empt the hand wringing and sighs of oh, it’s just Brazil, I googled similar crimes on the internet – and hey presto two examples from Irelands Norn and Sourn in the last ten years. So you see, kiddies – it’s not just Brazil, and it will change, and if you stop moaning and get off your arses and do something about it will change even quicker. Which would be nice, wouldn´t it?

Anyway – all this is a bit of a tedious digression from what I really wanted to say, which is that I’m now pretty much old meat for the mosquitoes myself, but the thing is that I’ll never be old Brazilian meat, no matter how hard I try, as I will now try to explain in gloriously convoluted fashion.

One thing that Ol’ Ryszard (see last entry) writes very well about is Herodotus, which is a good thing, given that he spends almost all of the book talking about reading Herodotus. And one thing Herodotus writes very well about, it seems, is assorted scrapping between various different countries and tribes in far flung times (war, as it’s commonly known). He writes about the Lydians having punch ups with the Persians, and the Persians knuckle dusting with the Massagetae. He tells us about people from Cyrene talking to the Ammonians, and the Ammonian king telling them about the Nasamones and all the crazy fun they get up to. Then he gets into a corker of a story about Darius The Persian King and the Babylonians, and then Darius The Persian King II, in which Darius lives gets down and dirty in Scythia. Anyway, it’s all great fun, only, what with my current situation and mindset being as it is, I could only really notice one thing.

Which is that with all these wacky tribes and countries beating seven bells out of each other, and then sitting down and talking to oracles and getting smashed on cheap moonshine and chomping down olives and goat cheese – how the hell does no-one call anyone else a gringo?

And leading on from that, do the Ammonians (or the Nasamones, or the Lydians, or whoever) charge the Cyrenians (or the Nasamones, or the Lydians, or whoever) double for their goat cheese? Do they laugh at the Ammonians (or the…ok, you get the picture) fifth century BC equivalent of wearing white knee socks with sandals? Don’t they try and nick the Ammonians cameras?

Because being gringo is a big thing for me, these days, being as I may as well have it tattooed on my forehead. The Ferrari breaks down, for example, or at least won’t start, so I ask the driver of the car next to me in the supermarket car park for a jump start. He looks at me. You’re not from here, are you? is his first comment. His opener! I get a bit steamed up, wondering what the hell difference it makes to the voltage levels in the Ferrari’s battery whether I’m from Recife or not. Or does he have an exclusive no-gringos policy when it comes to giving jump starts? But then I remember – he’s just being curious, because Brazilians are a curious bunch, and like to ask each other a lot of questions. And it could be worse – I could be in a malevolent London suburb (I’m thinking Peckham or Bermondsey) or a despondent north of England former mill or mining town (up t’clarets!), or even oh city of my birth, my love, my light, Belfast, in which case the question you’re not from here are you would swiftly be followed by a smack in the kisser and a size 10 boot in the kidneys. Which it won’t here.

But still, it’s hard, to always be different. It might be harder in Brazil than in a lot of places, because Brazilians don’t really differentiate between nationalities – Pole, Irish, Russian, Chinese, Australian, Albanian, Somalian – we’re all gringoes. So I lose my Irishness, or my Norn’ Irishness, which may not seem a hell of a lot to lose, but it’s something, if only that it’s not Englishness. It’s hard, because on one level I know that even if I spend 40 years living here, I’ll still be a gringo, I’ll still talk funny, I’ll never get to the bottom of things. It adds to the stress levels, a little.

An example. Remember The Ex-Girlfriend With Two Kids? No, neither do I, not really, but if you really want to know who she is/was, then take a look at entry dated a really long time ago. Anyway, I was thinking recently about a pleasant enough afternoon spent with The Ex-Girlfriend With Two Kids on the beach at Boa Viagem, more than a year ago or so now. This was during the period when The Ex-Girlfriend With Two Kids (and readers of The Psychological Benefits Of Exercise, should there be any, might recognise aspects of TEGWTK in the character of Jesus’ Sister’s Friend in the story Disciple - recently printed for everyone’s pleasure on these very pages) and I were no longer pretending to be in a relationship and were instead pretending to be friends.

So we sat on the beach, TEGWTK and I, TEGWTK resplendent in a very small blue bikini, the parts of TEGWTK not hidden by the blue bikini revealing precious little evidence that two kids had ever spent nine months or so kicking back within TEGWTK’s admirably streamlined belly, and drank beer and smoked cigarettes. Thoughts of my hand resting inappropriately on TEGWTK´S tawny kneecap strayed across my brain. Towards the end of the day, as people drifted home, the beach to the left and right of us came to resemble what I imagine Hiroshima must have looked like after the big firework landed – the earth churned and torn, all manner of refuse, both human and industrial, scattered distraught, as far as the eye could see. This is what the beach at Boa Viagem usually looks like at the end of the day on Saturday and Sunday.

Anyway, in front of us at least the view was serene. The milky ocean lapped back and forth, the sun licked the sky pink and orange out over the horizon. A few chalky grey clouds provided some relief from all the pastel. It’s beautiful, isn’t it, ventured TEGWTK. It certainly is, I replied, though secretly preferring the shipwrecky brute ferocity of the north Atlantic around Donegal and Antrim. Thanks be to God for all of it, TEGWTK said softly, swigging on her beer and stubbing her fag butt into the sand at the same time.

I shifted uncomfortably in my scratchy plastic deckchair. TEGWTK looked at me.



It’s not nothing. Out with it.

I proffered peanuts.

No. What is it?

So out with it I came. Not really such a big fan of the whole Adam and Eve shebang and the Creation myth and all that carry on, I think I might have nervously stuttered, or at least words to that effect.

Silence from TEGWTK, who is not always what one might call a shy retiring little rose petal. A momentary pause for thought. TEGWTK hawked up a greener. Spat a long meteor trail into the sand. What, I suppose you believe in all that science crap? All that bullshit about fish turning into monkeys and monkeys turning into people?

Um, yes, doesn’t everyone?, I think I might have said, and then probably made some kind of exaggerated grabbing of the crotch gesture and fled to the toilets, already well-versed in one of Brazil’s golden rules – heretics shouldn’t get into arguments about religion with good god-fearing Brazilians.

Of course, what I wanted to say was something along the lines of assuming for a moment that one believes in some kind of omnipotent God type figure, and that he did make all of this admittedly sometimes picturesque world, then surely the only way to understand a God who no longer remotely cares about us (or if he does care is currently enjoying the longest long weekend ever known) is to look through his eyes and see ourselves as he must see us – millions of little ants, scurrying around, fighting, building tiny ant cities with tiny ant hospitals and tiny ant schools, firing tiny ant rockets at each other, having tiny ant sporting events. Only then can we understand why such a God does not care when a baby dies, for what do we care when an ant baby dies? And while it is understandable for the ants to believe in the existence of humans (or us in God, in the metaphor), it is rather harder to fathom why the ants might choose to pray to the humans and praise their glorious name, and ergo why we might choose to pray to Him and praise His glorious name. Given that, rather neatly, he doesn’t really seem to give a monkey’s.

But I couldn’t, firstly because it’s mentalist gibberish, secondly because TEGWTK would either not get it or would not like it and would become angrier still, and there’s the thing. It was one of those moments, common to any stranger in a strange town, when you notice that you are different from those around you. Not different in terms of skin colour or language or accent or the way you take your coffee, but fundamentally, profoundly, irrevocably different. And that try as you might, you’re never going to get there – there being that almost mystical place where all the secrets of being Brazilian (that Brazilians are born with and that cannot be learned or read about in books) are kept. (Not that all Brazilians think Darwin a crank, but let’s say that more Brazilians think Darwin a crank than Londoners might (hawk/spit). Particularly Brazilians from humbler roots, given that those from humbler roots the world over tend to believe in gods and monsters a bit more than their finer robed brethren).

It’s not just being Brazilian, of course, it could well be being Irish, or being Russian, or being Uzbekistani. And from there it’s only a short leap over to the biggest question of all, for all of us accursed lepers, otherwise known as gringos ­– what the hell am I doing here? Will it one day all this otherness become too much, and will I have no choice but to stand on the Estrada Da Batalha with my arm stretched out and little cardboard sign with My Mum’s House, Dundrum, County Down, written on it?

Who knows or cares?

Now this, you see, is all by way of introduction to what I hope will be a very long, very occasional, tediously pretentious series of jottings on the theme of migration, exile, memory and gringoism. It is something I have been thinking about for a long time, and very much want to write about, though whether I can be arsed or have the time is the burning question. It just as easily might not be about any of these things, or even be a series at all. But I have to do something until Santa come back from their hols, don´t I?