Friday, 19 November 2010

I hate women who only want bits of me. I offer her the enormous totality of me, and she says yes, I´ll have the conversation bit, and the company bit, but not the bed bit, or even the handsonmybigtits bit. I hate the partial livers, I’m an allornothinger.

So says Albert Angelo, a creation of BS Johnson, who cut holes in his books so that readers could see through to the bits that were coming up, and published The Unfortunates in 27 unbound sections in a box. BS is obviously a hero of this column (and would be even more so if I´d read any of his books other than Christie Malry´s Own Double Entry). Especially when it was discovered in Jonathan Coe´s brilliant biography of the Hammersmith Beckett, Like A Fiery Elephant, that for most of his life, from the time he was a chubby sexless undergraduate through to his years working in the accounts departments of poxy suburban London companies like The Standard Vacuum Oil Company, believed that he was a writer, and a great one at that.

This is as usual nothing very much to do with anything, except that YLIAI can identify strongly. Real life gets in the way of dreams, as Tiririca said, and if you’re not careful you can find your life full of too much real life. YLIAI has been, at various junctures, the following: paper boy, builders’ yard skivvy, shopboy (sweet shop/launderette/greengrocers), distributor of flyers, distributor of illicit substances (details unavailable at time of going to press), obscure government department office lackey, door to door salesman (cleaning products), licker of envelopes, cloakroom boy (nightclub), box office clerk (nightclub), telephone company office lackey, record company tea boy (royalties department), record company high flying pretend lawyer, teacher of English to disinterested Brazilian teenagers. All of these were both awful and wonderful at the same time, though plenty of times the scale tipped way too far over to the former, and only rarely did it land much on the side of the latter.

The writing nonsense probably arrived somewhere in the middle of all that (it was understandably not that much in evidence in the hopes and dreams of a suburban Belfast teenager, for whom cassette based computer games and hitting girls with sticks because they couldn’t play football were far more important), and has dawdled on ever since, despite a stunning lack of commercial success.

It has been tied in a sack and thrown in the river more than a few times, and has been beaten to a pulp by the idiot glamour of London clubs and bars and back stage passes to Stereophonics (I know) shows. But is still there today, hence the awful machinations of this blog and the undiscovered gems (I promise) contained in The Psychological Benefits Of Exercise and to a lesser extent Your Life Is An Impossibility.

This is all rather narcissistic, of course, and so apologies. But there is some relevance to things brasileiro, I swear. It is this - with all this idle reminiscing about the past one cannot help but put one´s life into an overall context, to look for the grand plan, and with mine I cannot help but think there has not been one life but several.

Many will surely say the same, but of course I am not just talking about the ugly duckling into uglier swan transformation of aforementioned unloveable Belfast schoolboy into equally unloveable Manchester based university stooodent. Those two are simply phases of life, and everyone has them.

But not everyone has their period of Madchester cops and robbers nightclub door security based shenanigans (so you sell the tickets on the door, then I´ll get them off the punters at the top of the stairs, then I´ll give them back to you and you sell them again only this time you put the money in your pocket then we divvy it up again at the end of the night), coupled with being involved at the very lowest level of the equally aforementioned illicit substances trade (and YLIAI must stress that his participation never really amounted to more than putting one “friend” in touch with another “friend” and he certainly never got his hands dirty or did anything that was even remotely, um, illegal, officer).

Not everyone either, then goes all Dick Whittington and heads off to London and achieves a modicum (the bare minimum of a modicum, for readers of a recent piece) of success in the tawdry bauble that is the music industry, which is ironic because anyone could, given that all you need is a bit of common sense and a sense of humility that leaves you just short of believing you are Genghis Khan, as said industry is almost entirely bereft of both such qualities (common sense and humility, if anyone got lost in that wordy tangle).

And then, getting up to speed, not everyone decides to jack it all in and move to a ramshackle and often bloodily violent bespeckled jewel of a city in the sometimes parched, sometimes lush, occasionally brutal and depressing, almost always thrilling nordeste of Brazil (artistic licence here, because regular readers will know that before Recife came Belo Horizonte, which is almost none of these things, and after Belo Horizonte came João Pessoa, which is really just bloody awful).

It is Brazil that gives most claim to the theory of having lived more than one life, because this is life now and it is entirely different from life as it was a long time ago, and the memories of life as it was a long time ago are fading fast. Mistakes are made when speaking English – the long time gringo talks of marking a meeting with friends, or says it depends of the weather, and he’ll spell it Brasil and not Brazil even without wanting to. The silence and order of more rigid (and let´s face it, better organised) societies up on the other side of the equator appear odd and repressed, and it seems peculiar that people should care about their friends or colleagues arriving ten or twenty minutes late, because since when is time really that important anyway?

It is only really this – the sense of being torn from the womb of one´s cosy and comfortable motherland and hurled (bumpy landing guaranteed) into the whirl and jumble of an entirely different type of place, where you don´t speak the lingo and everything seems odd and vaguely threatening, that gives one a sense of being in the middle of another life. Phases, or stages, of life – marriage-divorce-motherhood-oldage-death – are a different plate of rice and beans altogether.

So then – not better (at time of writing living in Recife feels like chewing glass, though this is probably a product of work and financially related stress, and spending too much time embroiled in the city’s hellish traffic network), not worse (it’s still sunny, even in the longest traffic jam in the world), but different. Wow. Take that, Einstein.

And to end, a quick tribute to BS Johnson, who as almost nobody knows killed himself in 1973, aged 40:

Now I have met a girl here named Chris who lives in the flat below us, and is My Sort in the natural way of things, we get on in almost everything except religion, and religion unfortunately affects sex from her point of view. In fact it proves an insuperable barrier to everything except kissing and a little gentle ear-chewing, and even this latter is regarded as devillish and will probably be confessed in due time. The rot started the first time we went out, the morning after coming home from a dance at three in the morning. I asked her how she had slept; she replied that she was so tired that she had fallen asleep in the middle of her prayers. I restrained myself, but with an effort, and I had to lean against the wall to stop myself from falling. I can´t remember the last time I knew a girl who said her prayers – wait, yes I can, I was four at the time, and she was three; I think I had just seen through God, and I was annoyed at him for not existing. Anyway, I flatter myself into thinking that Chris is praying for my conversion, though conversion from what I don´t know, since I have no beliefs to be converted from. It´s embarrasing, to say the least, out in the street, for whenever we pass a catholic church she crosses herself; not protestant ones, she says ‘that one’s yours’, whenever we pass one she has not crossed herself for; I, of course, hotly deny ownership. Ah, well. ‘Tis enough to drive one to rape, or something. (From letter to Stuart Crampin, August 6th 1959)

Monday, 1 November 2010

All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking said Nietzsche (or Justin Bieber), an opinion YLIAI heartily agrees with. And where better to go for an urban walk than downtown Recife on a Saturday night, particularly with the prospect of a palavra or four waiting at the end?

So you go out the door of your apartment and down three flights of stairs, then through the doors of the building and out the gate and into the street, where the church across the road is lit up in shimmering red and green and orange for a wedding. It is a muggy but breezy night and your shirt is already sticking to your back. You turn left on the corner, touching Zita on the arm as you pass the corner beer hut. Zita is setting out the tables that later will be filled with drinkers but still she stops and looks up at you and peers at you through her glasses and she says tudo bom meu filho and you wave and walk on.

You press play and it is Greg Dulli singing tonight tonight I say goodbye to everyone who loves me just as you walk past a policeman going into the strip club slash brothel. Two fat men are trying to light the charcoal of their barbecue stand against the soft warm whip of the wind and across the street on the third floor of the flop house hotel a man is leaning out of his window and smoking and watching everything that is happening down below.

Turining left towards the avenida you pass a strip of bars. Two of them have been plunged into darkness though the drinkers drink on, sloshing down their Skol and their cachaça and laughing in the murky gloam of the light cast by the bigger gaudier barbecue joint on the corner.

Then just behind the shopping center you weave your way through Recife’s very own Sodom and Gomorrah, or Bar Pithausen, where on Saturdays and Sundays the street becomes a Noah’s Ark of adolescent sexual ingenuity – hetrosexual and homosexual and bisexual and trisexual and asexual cavorting merrily until the early hours. It is the same story in Mustang, the big bar on the avenida, though here the gay abandon is diluted by the surliness of the non-sexually liberated and more hardened recifense drinkers.

In the bank all the machines are out so you head down the avenida where the wind has picked up and the buses rattle past and the mendicants and hawkers and scavengers are out in force. The hawkers are selling Barbie dolls and water and pirate DVDs and bus passes and everything in between and the scavengers and the mendicants are eyeing the crowds hungrily for prey. As long as you walk fast and with steely determination you will probably not become a victim.

Everywhere along the avenida tucked into doorways or stretched along ledges or gutters are stick thin homeless people huddled under cardboard and tarpaulin, oblivious to all the people stepping over and around and sometimes on them.

When you get to Sete De Setembro you turn left and walk through the hot dog and the newspaper stands, past the dire pagode clubs and behind the beautiful big white law college building where the palm trees wave their fronds. Then you are at the park where through the fence and in the dark you can see swans, and you zig zag along the bottom side nearest the river and then you turn right and there is the gaggle of bars that you have been looking for.

So you sit down then and rest your legs, and of course there is drink and always, always, something to see happening around you, and just as you sit down there is Greg Dulli again, singing up on the ladder they sing how high does a brother have to climb to touch the light? won´t you take me up there with you you said you would, no-one ever could shake that ladder like i could, which for some reason (maybe it´s the echoes of an old slave refrain, maybe it’s the sense of deperation and regret) seems as fitting an end as anything.