Monday, 22 February 2010


And why should we wish the darkness harm, it is our element, or curse the darkness because we are doomed to love in it, and die. And those who move along the edges can see it so until they fall.

Re-reading John McGahern´s All Sorts Of Impossible Things I am struck by both how much an Irish voice still speaks to me and also the terrible seriousness of McGahern´s writing, until I remember that it is only serious in the sense of how foolish we and our writers might have become – a Parsonic assortment of pranking stylists and simpering romantics wrought redundant by ten or so pages of an old Irish writer´s power.

Though reading in English in Recife has a hypnotic effect, or at least reading anything good or different. Before carnaval I sat in a bar reading (a bizarre enough thing to do here) All The Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen, transfixed enough by the usual tales of very clever young Jewish New Yorkers. And I looked up and around me then it seemed as if the world may have recently come to an end somewhere close by and no-one had told me – men lay straggled across the pavement, women danced between buses belching smoke, music – Brazilian reggae, pagode, frevo and forro – poured from cars and the bar´s stereo and radios held in the hands of other men and women walking by. A translucent moon shone above the palm trees, fringes waving slatternly down at the street, and waking from my book, I looked around half-dazed and thought, in Portuguese, ironically enough, que isso? The living of two mental and cultural minds can be a disconcerting business.

It´s funny too that probably I could count the number of Brazilians who have ever heard of, let alone read, John McGahern on the fingers of one maozinho. This is neither McGahern or the Brazilians fault, of course – why should a Brazilian know about or read the short, lovely, brutal stories of a dead writer from Leitrim? But I can´t help but compare, because two lives lived in one, with the ghost of the old life coming back to stir the memory, make comparison an easy bed pal.

And what city is this, where I live? It is a city which over the course of five days can put around two million people on its streets, every day, to celebrate and drink and dance and sing. Where I stood, last Tuesday at 6am in the middle of 20,000 people (it had dwindled from 500,000) in Recife Antigo watching the final apoteose of carnaval, a few hundred musicians and singers on the stage, most in the crowd appalled at the suggestion that all this would not go on for ever? And where, during all this fun and games, this happens.

Though carnaval seemed a little empty this year, every day much the same, beauty and tradition replaced by holocaustian boozing. The pressure of carnaval can be a terrifying thing for anyone not fully prepared. Proposing the idea that one might, perhaps, stay in and have an early night might lead to assorted Brazilians getting all Salem-witch-trial-on-one´s-ass. And so, feeling old and tired and never quite drunk enough, I trudge the streets from Recife to Olinda to the Galo Da Madrugada, yearning sometimes, though not all the time, for a quiet corner, a quiet pint, and a book of John McGahern stories.

A footnote or three or four.

Footnote One. When I left Ireland (or rather England) to come to Brazil I brought with me John McGahern´s recently published memoirs. As I read his stories now I wonder if he has written more, until I flick to the front of the book and read the words John McGahern died in 2006. A strange thing, to believe yourself to be reading the words of someone who is alive only to discover they have died, and you, distantly removed, have not heard the news.

Footnote Two. Carnaval, if nothing else, provides a second new year with which to gird one´s loins and make oneself a better man. To which end I resolve, with the help of good friend and Drogheda´s finest, Pierce Brosnan (so-called in honour of another famous Droghedense) to give up drink forever and ever. Only it´s not so easy. Carnaval finishes on Tuesday, and Wednesday is Ash Wednesday when all must return to normal. But who ever started a resolution on a Wednesday? I make it through one night in a bar with The Argument and her friends in Boa Viagem Uber Alles, mainly because I´m driving, and as everyone knows, se for dirigir não bebe. Only I, like a shorn Samson, have no words, no jokes, no conversation, without the soft balm of booze, and spend the evening sullenly tearing paper napkins into shreds. By the time we get back to Olinda I can´t take it anymore, and so I bribe The Argument with the promise of some camarão at the bar on the corner, knowing I´ll be able to slake my thirst while she munches away. Thursday too is no good for stopping or starting anything, and there´s a bit of whiskey left over from carnaval, so, but. And over the course of these few days the argument (not The Argument) rages – is all this giving up really good for anyone? Shouldn´t I really, like Paul Calf, just cut down on drinking spirits? During the week? Doesn´t all this abstinence make Jack a very dull boy? Just thinking about it makes me thirsty.

Footnote Three. The Argument likes football, which might be why I like The Argument. On the phone we talk about the Santa Cruz game on TV yesterday afternoon. Don´t tell me the score of the Botafogo – Vasco game, I tell her, it´s being repeated later and I want to watch it. Botafogo won, The Argument shouts gleefully down the receiver. I think I hear her hands clapping in the background. I pause for a moment before summoning two thousand years of Cuchulainic rage. Are you out of your feckin´mind? I yell, apoplectic. What, says The Argument, the phone was cutting out. I couldn´t hear you. I thought you asked me the score. Are you going to apologise for shouting at me? And so it often was between lovers in the Tropics, or at least the sub-Tropics, in the early years of the 21st century.

Footnote Four. On the back of the Faber edition of John McGahern´s Getting Through Michael Irwin of the TLS writes that McGahern has the Irish gift of being able to move fluently and unselfconsciously between a simple and a heightened style. And moving fluently between a simple and a heightened style, would seem, wouldn´t it, to be the very goal of any kind of good writing, even if it´s a goal of which this blog can only occasionally dream.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010


The late American poet Elizabeth Bishop, who spent a hefty chunk of her life in Rio de Janeiro, Petropolis and Ouro Preto, maybe said it best of all. I am sorry for people who can´t write letters, she wrote to her friend Mrs. Kit Barker, but I suspect also that you and I love to write them because it´s kind of like working without really doing it. The work referred to, one assumes, is what might be called proper writing, which for EB was poetry, but might as well be fiction or even, at a push, journalism. The point, perhaps, is the avoidance of responsibility and pressure – writing letters supplies the creative and communicative and even narrative marrow (or grist - I couldn´t decide whether grist was better than marrow, so I´ve included both) required, without any of the bad bits like writing to a deadline or being judged by others. Following on from such a theory, and assuming that no-one really writes letters anymore, and therefore that what you read here might be considered the modern equivalent of a letter to no-one, or even everyone, then such a concept – that of needing to write something without being quite ready to embark on the next Brothers Karamazov -makes a great deal of sense to me and I suspect quite a few others.

And words, rather obviously, are important. Something one learns quickly in a foreign country, even once some ropy command of the local tongue has been acquired, is that words can no longer be trusted. False friends, they call them. Discutir is a good one – related vaguely to the English discuss, in Portuguese the word has more aggressive tones – a row, a scrap, a kick in the balls from The Argument. And it goes both ways. I try to explain the difference between hate and loathe to a Brazilian. There is one, tiny though it is, I´m sure, though I can´t quite pinpoint it. I know when the nuances of the situation are better suited to hate than loathe and vice versa, or at least I think I do, but how to explain it is another thing entirely. I embark on a half-baked ramble about the Nazis and racism, and how hate can be a concept and even a noun, whereas loathe is more often purely personal. But I can´t convince even myself, and so I give up after realising that my listener has lost interest some time ago and is in fact now staring intently at two girls in very short shorts walking past on the other side of the road.

And who would blame him? I also notice, as the heat in Recife grows ever more intense, and the streets are hung with balloons and bunting, and the pre-carnaval parades and parties are now so frequent that everything seems to blend into one endless wall of drums and smoke, that there is a slipperiness to Portuguese that is not always welcome. Living in, or even God forbid governing, a society as sprawling and complex as Brazil demands a great sense of responsibility, and some people who live here can be unfortunately, from time to time, great shirkers of responsibility. A whole vocabulary has sprung up to aid and abet this shirking. There is to chegando, or I’m arriving, and keen grammaticians/grammaticists will spot quickly that no such continuous form of the verb arrive really exists in English (or at least it´s not used very often). To chegando means officially I´m almost there, but can equally mean I´m at home watching TV, in a minute I´m going to have a shower and a bite to eat, then I´ll get the bus. I should be there in about two hours. Press your would-be-companion further, presumably by phone – if you can speak to him personally, of course, he´s probably already chegaded - demand to know where he is exactly, and you probably won´t get much joy – perhaps even a little irritation. To chegando, ok? Isn´t that enough? What more do you need?

Then there are the two great unquestionable excuses of the modern Brazilian age, applicable to virtually any situation where an engagement has been made and broken, be it work, social commitment or court appearance. The first is universal enough – o transito foi horrivel. The traffic was terrible. Of course we know urbanites of our great metropolises the world over, from Los Angeles to Limerick, must suffer the pains of oversaturated transit systems. But in more stiffly collared societies the excuse cannot be repeated more than once or twice – should the panting clerk present the same feeble story to his boss a third time he´s likely to either be asked, if his boss is a gentle soul, if perhaps he might have left home a little earlier, or if his boss is not a gentle soul at all, he´ll be out on his ear before you can say sou eu, sou eu, sou inferno coral, sou eu. Brazil is different – uncontestable, in Brazil o transito foi horrivel may well have been carved on the back of one of Moses´s original stone tablets.

The other, even better, is tenho um negocinho pra resolver em casa. I have a little thing to sort out at home. Like what, the hypertense gringo might shriek, watching TV? Slap up breakfast in your dressing gown with the papers? Such neuroticism is useless, however, as are any questions as to what the negocinho might be – the invoking of the word itself, like some kind of druidic incantation, is enough to captivate and hypnotise the listener so that the only acceptable response is oh, ok then. Sorry for asking. It´s the recifense version of these are not the droids you are looking for.

Though I save the best for last, that great Brazilian absolver of personal blame, beloved of shop workers and civil servants and holders of any kind of minor responsibility. É complicado. It´s complicated. Subtext – it´s not up to me, I’m sorry to say, in fact I don´t really know who it’s up to. Maybe the Prefeitura, maybe Lula, maybe God. But it´s out of my hands. I´d like to help, really I would. But my hands are tied. Looking for a new place to live (of which more later), The Argument and I find a nice apartment overlooking Recife´s not entirely polluted Lagoa Da Araça. I am smitten. But there is Guinness The Dog to consider. Will the sindico (building superintendent) show some puppy love? We ask him. Show some puppy love, sindico, gwan gwan gwan.

Hands are proffered, palms turned outward. Shoulders are shrugged, eyebrows raised skyward. There is a long pause.

Desculpe, mas é complicado.

Which leaves nothing more for me to say other than to sign off just as EB did in a letter to Robert Lowell from 1950.

Well, I must make myself a dish of tea.

Monday, 1 February 2010


Running is good, running is healthy, running helps you think. Running is particularly good just after all of 2010’s promises have been razed to the ground. Though Brazil might just be the worst place in the world to keep a new year’s resolution, particularly those relating to smoking, drinking or the improved upkeep of the morality of one´s soul, because six weeks after the turn of the year comes carnaval, which, as everyone knows, is a five (or six, or seven) day booze soaked celebration of something or other, all sponsored in Recife and Olinda by the big beer companies - which is better, at least, than not only being sponsored by the big beer companies but also entirely planned and orchestrated by the big TV companies, like in São Paulo. Rumour has it that carnaval used to have some kind of religious significance, if only in terms of its place in the calendar, but it’s now an entirely pagan affair, so pagan in fact that it’s shunned by the most proddy of Brazilan’s proddy dogs, the evangelicos. Anyway – carnaval seems a wearying prospect, these days, particularly after gallons of drink have been drunk on the weekend.

Hence the running. On Sunday it is the Virgens De Verdade pre-carnaval parade (or bloco) in Olinda. Virgens De Verdade (Virgins 4 Real, you might translate), is a splinter group from Virgens Do Bairro Novo, a carnaval group that has been running for 57 years. Rather oddly for one of the world´s most rock-skulled machismo societies, both the Virgens De Verdade and Virgens Do Bairro Novo involve large numbers of overweight, unattractive men dressing up in women´s underwear and parading up and down the street. 200,000 or so people come out to celebrate all this by singing and dancing and drinking and smoking and fornicating and urinating and defecating in the streets, just as the good Lord intended. So as I run (the revelers have long gone home and only a few lost souls wander the streets down by the seafront, shambling the zombie shuffle from who knows where to God knows where) the ground is sticky and the air is ripe with the smell of spilt beer and piss. Still there is a damp salty breeze off the ocean and a fat orange moon hanging like a rotten grapefruit among the clouds, which is something. And, like I said, it is good to run – because it gives one time to think. And when I think, of course, I think about Santa Cruz.

What I think about this night, with the heat and the smell almost suffocating, is how one of the things that has always attracted me to baseball is the pleasing symmetry between the sport and the seasons, at least in the USA. In Boston, the annual Truck Day February departure of the Red Sox equipment truck on its lonely crawl down the coast, on what is the New England equivalent of Groundhog Day, represents the (hopeful) end of winter, or at least the hope that the end of winter is in sight. Spring training itself, in sunnier climes like Arizona or Florida, is self-explanatory – spring is here, summer is coming. And then summer itself is finally here, and the boys of summer will play a game every day for the next handful of months, only fading gently into the night with the crisp winds of autumn come October.

No such luck in Recife, with its mono-season climate (very hot and sunny with a short period of still pretty hot and occasionally rainy). What would be the recifense equivalent of Truck Day? Hard to say, given that football in Brazil never really stops – at the end of the national championships in December it`s only a few weeks until the start of the state competitions in January. Santa Cruz, O Mais Querido, are as banjaxed as ever, of course. Hardly anyone remains from the disastrous 2009 Serie D campaign – which might be a good thing. Most of the team is made up of the craggy veterans and toothsome young whelps that made up the glorious Copa Pernambuco winning team (if winning a semi-pro competition you`re only in because you got knocked out of Serie D rather earlier than expected counts as glorious), plus whatever has-beens and never-will-bes that could be tempted to give up the anonymity of the second divisions of the São Paulo or Rio (or Mato Grosso) state championships to come and try their luck in the bear pit of Arruda. Financial peril hovers ominously– rumours are that the Ministerio Da Justica is poised to flog off the club`s team bus and floodlight towers to pay outstanding labour debts. Football being football though, where impoverishment and mammoth debt never seems to get in the way of spending money on new players, Santa unveil midfielder Jackson at the start of the Pernambucano. Jackson is also a craggy veteran, but unlike the other craggy veterans, he might be pretty good.

And so it all begins again – the whirring creaking rollercoaster of Pernambucanan football. No-one has any money, everyone will sack their manager after a few weeks and most of their players after a few months, and Sport will probably win it because they`re not quite as bad as Santa or Nautico. Big crowds will roll up for the games – Santa and Sport are already averaging over 20,000 per game though the only opposition so far has been the farmhands and share croppers from the interior. Best of all, the format has been changed, and now calls for semi-finals and a final at the end of the league trot, which should ensure at least a handful of apocalyptic classicos before the whole thing is put to bed.

This little ode to all things tricolor was inspired, largely, by the fact that at five o`clock (RMT) last Wednesday Manchester City played Manchester United in the second leg of the semi-final of some cup or other (classico), and at half past eight on the same night Santa Cruz played Nautico in the fifth game of the Campeonato Pernambucano (super-classico). This made me as excited as a fat twelve year old locked in a chip shop with the fryers on full, of course, especially after City hero Carlitos Tevez, who speaks English like I speak Portuguese, called famed Manchester United shop steward and son of a man called Neville Neville, otherwise known as Gary Neville, a sock-sucking moron. I was in Manchester for the first game, which City won 2-1, and apart from the shininess of the stadium, and the jumbotron TV screens, and the fact that we went for drinks in a chrome and glass furnished Danish theme bar before the game (as opposed to sucking down cans of Skol by the stagnant canal as it might have been if the game had been played in Recife), was touched by just how much the atmosphere at Eastlands was similar to the atmosphere at Arruda. In that, at least, pretty much all the City fans would have cheered had the Angel of Death wrought cruel vengeance on all the United fans and team, and vice versa, in much the same way as all tricolores would wish similar agonies upon all rubro-negros if it were Sport - Santa, and vice versa. Fun and games afoot after the game, too, when all of Manchester, it seemed, was swamped in buzzing police sirens and blinking red lights. No running street battles, though, which made me feel just a little saudades for Recife.

All these uncanny football related twists of fate and coincidence, of course, were knocked into a nevilled hat when token City Brazilian genius, Robinho, announced that he couldn`t stand earning r$10,000,000,000 per minute for playing very badly for another second, and that he was homesick for Santos. As anyone who has ever been to Santos might tell you, it`s a strange place to pine for, being, if anything, the Brazilian Middlesborough. All this sparked great debate amongst UK based journalists and people who write things on their own internet pages, the question being, namely –why the hell would a Brazilian millionaire living in the First World ™ want to come back to Brazil and play for bloody Santos?

A very good question, of course, right up there with that posed to Deep Thought in The Hitchhiker`s Guide To The Galaxy, and relevant to gringos in Brazil, many of whom are probably if nothing else at least used to better quality of bed linen back home than they are in their new sub-tropical lives. The answer, when it comes, comes from a strange source – Roberto Querioz and Ralph De Carvalho – the Gandalf and Yoda of Recife´s sporting radio waves. I´ll tell you why they want to come back, said one or the other last year, answering the same question in regard to another wayward former superstar recently returned to Brazil, Adriano. I went to France for the 1998 World Cup. Day one – fantastic, cup of coffee on the Champs Elysees, look at the pretty French girls, bingo. Day two – up the Eiffel Tower. Day three, the Louvre, Mona Lisa, lovely. After that – pause for dramatic effect – what the hell are you going to do in Paris if you´re Brazilian? You can´t go to the beach, you can´t see your friends or your family, you can´t even go for a proper bloody drink. To which, slightly demented and tongue in cheek though it is, I can only say – hear hear, and I imagine Robinho in his lonely Cheshire mansion, the neighbours complaining when he plays his Banda Calypso records too loud, turning to the missus on a rainy Friday night and saying Christ, love, what the hell are we going to do tonight? Go for a pint down The Dog and Duck?

All of this, funnily enough, leads me in a round about way to the point. To the extent that there is a point. And the point is this. Watching the City game on TV last Wednesday as a cheeky little aperitif to the main course (I’m more Santa than City these days, funnily enough), I ponder things aloud to The Argument. If I have to choose, light of my life, my heart, my joy, which should it be? City, who haven’t been to a final in 34 years, and who are up against the Evil Empire itself? Or Santa, permanently in chronic need of happiness and charity in their endless fight against total self-destruction? And for a while I actually ponder it! Can you believe it? I actually believe I have a choice! It´s only four minutes into the Tricolor-Nautico classico, City already having been cruelly put to the sword (in the last minute!) on TV, when Santa´s uber-clown zagueiro Alex Xavier is sent off, that I realize the foolhardiness of my foolhardiness. What were you thinking, I scream to the heavens, as the rain starts hissing down over the aptly named Aflitos (Afflicted) stadium, that either of them actually stood a chance? Have you learnt nothing in the last thirty seven years?

So Santa, of course, lost too, rather as I knew they would once foolish bravado had been cast aside. And I wish I was a newspaper cartoonist, because if I was I would draw three people in a bar, all looking down on their luck. The first would say I´m Haitian, and I´ve lost my house and my family in the earthquake. The second would say that´s nothing mate, I´ve been a Manchester City season ticket holder for twenty years. And the third would say, so what? I’m a City season ticket holder and a Santa Cruz socio. Beat that.