One of the quaintest things about visiting Portugal for the first time in 1981, was the remarkable noises you heard from every adult’s, and I mean absolutely every adult’s throat. I never understood what the verb ‘to hawk’ really meant, till Annie and I went to what was to become one of our favourite and happiest destinations. 34 years later I’m not sure whether things have radically changed, and I recall as late as 2002, Annie struggled to enjoy her delicious and bargain fish lunch on our celebratory last day, after that wonderful Christmas we spent in the Algarve capital, accompanied by 13 year-old Ione and her bosom pal Maria. The reason was the adjacent table had three middle-aged Portuguese men violently and resonantly clearing their throats at virtuoso staggered intervals, and be assured they didn’t even know they were doing it. As I recall, Annie left half her wondrous salmonetes or red mullet, as she imagined even the stone dead fish might have been disgusted by the infernal laryngeal string quartet a few feet away. Don’t worry though, I polished off her mullet, and as fair deal let her have most of the wine, very nice vinho branco from the handsome and blindingly white Alentejo marble town of Borba. In case you hadn’t guessed, apropos my absent daughter and her friend, it was a fearful and mind-stretching 1pm = bloody old Dawn, yuk, yuk, and Ione and Maria were just turning over in their extremely rancid unmade beds, for a proper and full-on restorative sleep.
I think I experienced the throat music at its boldest and starkest, in central Faro, again back in 1981. Both Annie and I adored Faro, especially the old and dusty and oh so poetically tender backstreets, which at night have their ochre brickwork turned into something akin to ancient Rome, or some other hallowed and magical metropolis. On this occasion though, it was broad daylight, Annie was shopping for presents, and I was strolling amiably along a main thoroughfare in delightful hot sunshine. I dawdled and lit a cigar, something I only ever do on holiday, and in fact I haven’t smoked a single stogie since about 2001. I happened to be standing next to a bus stop, and the only person anywhere near me was a young, very well-dressed woman in a smart blue business suit. She looked like an ambitious and assertive bank manager, and her hairdo and make-up and everything else were very precise and impressive. I dawdled there sucking away at my puro with my back to her, when suddenly there was the rawest and loudest hawk, hoick, hyeuk you have ever heard in your life. I jumped, and took an oblique and ingenious private detective glance, and saw her handsome throat muscles moving ferociously, as conclusive proof it was Mrs Bank Manager here who sounded like 20 competitive Irish navvies clearing their clogged up baccy throats back around 1876. I blinked my amazement, but very evidently she didn’t even notice me, nor was she remotely aware that she had made that hideous tonsular racket. Then to complete the finale, and make my heart leap with a certain perverse joy, she pursed her handsome lips and leisurely spat a bolus of saliva onto the pavement beside me. She had eloquently gozzed, she had emphatically gobbed, God bless her, the bonny lady bank manager had gone and poicked like an indifferent farm labourer after he has just received his meagre wages back in 1924 in let’s say Wyre Piddle, Shipston on Stour, or Moreton in the Marsh.
A bit of sociology would not go amiss at this point. In 1981 Portugal had only been free of Fascism for 7 years, and ditto for Greece. A little thought would tell us that under Mediterreanean Fascism, there was not a lot of medical or social provision for the poor and the needy, as all too clearly it smacked of socialism. In 1981, way up north in the incomparable Tras Os Montes, there were still remote fluvial villages without any kind of bridge to the other side of the river, and to other communities. Hence on the train to Braganca from Porto, we saw villagers who were pulling themselves across by rickety makeshift buckets and pulleys, as in the bloody old Stone Age. It seems to me by extrapolation, we are now in the equivalent of impoverished working class English culture circa 1937, when the trains and buses all had prominent signs saying No Spitting. Apart from the very real threat of TB infection, people like coalminers and anyone who worked in dusty factories, had an urgent need of clearing their throats or otherwise feeling as if they were choking. By analogy Portugal emerging from the ugly stagnation of Fascism still had the Shakespearean or medieval social manners which permitted throat clearing, and plenty of other evidence of the body as something very real, not just a polite suit of Western European clothes inhabited by a deferential ghost.
It’s a nice theory, but alas it is all too likely bollicks. In Greece, even in remote and tiny Kythnos, they do not as a rule clear their throats at stentorian volume. You will be as pleased as I am, to learn that the island has only one throat-hawker, and he is sat opposite me now, harking and crarking away as reliably as a 1000 day clock marks the mystical passage of time. He is called Mano and is probably about 67 or 68. He is a fisherman and a bit of a loner, though he has a wife and very good-looking young daughter, who works in a craft shop in Loutra. He comes in the Glaros twice a day about 12am and 5pm, and consumes three very large glasses of white wine, and never drinks anything else. He is short on risible discursiveness, and each time as he leaves, croaks fevgo, which is absolutely unimpeachable and devastatingly existentially accurate, as it means ‘I am leaving’. He is bald and lean and rather shrivelled now, and he does not dress in style, but you can see he was once a very handsome man. His subtle and shy turquoise eyes are the give-away, and his daughter Sofia aged 20 is very beautiful. I have never met his wife, but likely she stays at home when he is out at the Glaros, so she can savour a hawk-cum-crawk-free hour or two.
The Glaros is a brisk and rough man’s kafeneion, so if there is going to be any unrestrained hawking, belching or riotous farting, here is where it would happen. How pleasing to relate that even when the three women who run the place are absent shopping down the village, the men are all as polite and decorous as peripatetic music teachers, at least when it comes to crude body noises. I have been going in there for 18 months virtually every day, and have yet to descry a single belch, a lone fart, a horrible hawking other than Mano’s. You maybe know that farting socially, as it were, is the most hideous thing an Arab can contemplate, so much so that to celebrate its exquisite rarity, The Arabian Knights has a story titled The Historic Fart. A man flees his wedding after loudly breaking wind there, and almost dying of shame, but returns 10 years later to his hometown where his nuptial flatulence has become so wondrously legendary, it is used to date all other events.
I am all of 64, and I can think of only one person I know who always farted publically and frequently, and in all companies, and without a trace of guilt, and without any sense of farce or buffoonery or devilment. He was called Dick Reed, and he was a very clever man with unusual and recondite literary and philosophical interests, a natural autodidact if ever there was. He left Cambridge in 1972 with a good degree in English, and failing to find a suitable job, took employment as a hospital porter, where he was the only one in his profession who spent his lunch breaks reading the entire oeuvre of Dostoievsky and Nietzsche. He was a bachelor all his life, though clearly he would have liked it to be otherwise. His presentation to the world was jovial and mannered and theatrical and ironical, but unfortunately he lived in an area where pirouettes and postures like those, went sailing over most people’s heads. By way of mitigation, in the town centre pubs, he talked the local dialect as best as he could, to try and be one of the boys, and of course that didn’t work either. He was living with his elderly parents in a large rambling house, and you could tell he was busting more than anything, even more than for Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard or even good old Graham Greene, for a nice little sweet little local girlfriend.
But sad to say, without any chronic medical condition, he farted and farted and farted, and the women stayed away in epic quantities. In an earnest public house one to one, with the likes of me, about say The Brothers Karamazov or the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, he would lift his leg and loudly fart and that was that, take it or leave it. If attempting to talk to a pretty girl in the same pub, he would beam and noisily fart, and she would pretend that he hadn’t, and before long move away at speed. Only once someone confronted him about his singular and challenging habit, and he huffed and puffed, but did not blush, and said it was a perfectly natural body function. I was present and couldn’t resist informing him, that so was the act of defecation, but most people, even the most uproarious, did not do that over Kaffeklatsch or as part of energetic and even ribald table talk.
For once he had nothing to say, and got up and left the pub, and he was audibly farting as he left. He had a copy of Notes from the Underground inside his capacious anorak pocket, and really it seemed to jig up and down to the cadences of his defiant and you might say altogether revolutionary farting.