THE CAFE IN THE SWAMP

The next post will be on or before Sunday 7th January

WHAT I DID AND READ IN 1996

Once again like Lord (aged 45), Lady (aged 41) and Princess Muck (all of 7) we had two foreign holidays in 1996, and visited Greece and Portugal in May and August. We spent a majestic 3 weeks in taking buses round the remoter parts of North Portugal, but scrimped relatively speaking by taking a low season bargain package to the Isle of Thassos in the North Aegean. Thassos is famous for its handsome pine forests but is so swamped by tourism, you can only find the authentic pre-boom parts of the island with a hire car. We relied on buses and the nearest we got to anything like a real village was a little place called Thelogos, where the only shop was still run by an old man who had no electronic till and who was touchingly courteous to the foreigners. The most dramatic event was on our day of arrival, when a thunderstorm broke out the like of which I have never seen nor heard before nor since (the Thassos folk said likewise). It was so unbelievably deafening and protracted, it was truly frightening and the downpour was such that our bedroom flooded from the veranda and we had to put all the towels down to soak it up. Otherwise the general flavour of the package island was apparent, when, sitting on the numerous buses that circled the resorts, one listened perforce to blameless elderly English couples, all of them wearing floppy white sunhats (only Brits wear those, no one else) making such comments as Ooh, there’s a nice little goat…Ooh and look, there’s another little goat, Derek…

North Portugal had none of that, and the tourist presence even in high season was almost entirely Portuguese. We turned up in beautiful Viana do Castelo on the Costa Verde where there was a massive folk festival, and it was a miracle we found anywhere to stay. Late at night after a 12-hour bus ride from the Algarve, we managed to locate a central pensao run by a wily widowed or more likely divorced lady in her late 60s, and she earnestly impressed on us our great fortune in finding her accommodation, fulsomely hinting that she was our charitable saviour, the poignant sight of our weary little daughter having clinched the matter. The room price she proposed was high but not extortionate, and over the next few days she showed a rather excessive and saccharine show of fondness for Ione. She even gave her an ornate beautifully dressed dolly which in the shops would have cost a pile of escudos (1996 was pre-euro) but the price for all this worrying munificence was that when we left she claimed we had agreed on twice as much as I was giving her. I had just enough Portuguese to scornfully argue the toss and refuse to pay her another escudo, but by way of obscure rebuke her tiny and crazy little puppy who was Ione’s best friend for the stay, decided to bite me painfully on the belly button of all places.

Two years earlier when we were bussing it round the Alentejo and Ione was only 5, she had been more than content with the town playgrounds for her daily diversion. Turned 7, she craved considerably more and she particularly craved a beach, the problem being that much of our 3 weeks was spent well inland. By a fluke that pleased her inordinately, there are a few little towns in the north that have rivers so wide and so shallow and so safe, they can also function as beaches and indeed are so named as a river beach or praia fluvial. Once Ione discovered the praia fluvial of Ponte de Lima, that wonderful place where the local vinho verde (‘green’ wine which can be either white or red) is served like draught beer from a huge barrel, she had no wish to trail round the massive weekly market, and believe me a Portuguese market outdoes all rivals (I am talking about miracles like 50 pairs of men’s socks for 5 euros or 10 cents per pair or 5 cents per foot…) Instead she spent much of the day in the Lima river and Annie and I did split supervision shifts, while the other went sightseeing. The business became altogether more surreal as we continued our epic journey round the north, and Ione demanded yet another praia fluvial where none was to be had. She did not understand why they weren’t universally available and it got to the stage where in lovely and remote Chaves (it means ‘keys’) just beyond the rampant cowboy town of Montalegre and close to the extraordinary troglodyte village of Pitoes das Junias, Annie was obliged to take her little daughter to the raucous town swimming pool in a roasting Portuguese August.

Until we took our excursion to Vidago that is, a small town famous for the bottled spring water consumed all over Portugal. It had nothing else to offer, alas, the market had been yesterday for example, and we were about to bus it back immediately to Chaves, when I suddenly noticed an obscure little sign saying Praia de Vidago…or Vidago Beach. Investigation of our little map, indicated there was a river parallel with a minor road, and at one site on an obscure and random bend, sure enough there was Vidago Beach. Instead of sensibly swapping tactical notes with Annie, I was fool enough to show Ione the map, and immediately and being a visionary optimist, she imagined it as the splendidly wide and majestic Lima with knobs on, so that in boiling heat we traipsed the couple of miles surveying a river which was in fact a sluggish and severely unappetising stream. Nevertheless, and just like Ione, I somehow expected that at the designated Praia Vidago, a glorious beach would swell into something like the Tiber crossed with the Irrawaddy, replete with gorgeous and hallucinatory sand, plus a hauntingly lovely café with the best bica espressos and cervejas this side of the Spanish border…

At last, by a kind of copse or spinney (what is the difference, one asks oneself?) we noted a café lurking adjacent to the river. The café called itself the Praia, so patently this could only be the site of the fabled beach. The river at its confluence with the café, which was a kind of humble shack straight out of a sultry novel from the Deep South, though minus the crocodiles…the river had become completely stagnant and worse still was covered in enormous quantities of bright green algae. There were about three yards of sand aka The Beach, between the café tables and the river, but had Ione wished to paddle there, she would have been obliged to paddle her way through clotted algae. Not even fearless Ione fancied that. Instead she dug with her bucket and spade for a while and I looked wonderingly at the café proprietor who was a pleasant moustachioed middle-aged man running his café in a kind of infernal swamp which presumably when he had bought the place a decade ago, had been a going concern and an extremely nice Sunday out. I don’t often feel moved by the pathos of a failing business but was that day, and so much so that I ordered twice as many coffees and beers as I wanted, and I wished somehow I could have waved a wand and changed this place back to what it once had been.

 

What I Read In 1996 (from my 1996 Diary)

 The Third Truth by Leonid Borodin (1938-2011. Novelist who was an Orthodox Christian and Soviet dissident)

Little Mountain by Elias Khoury (born 1948. Eminent Lebanese author and public figure)

Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga (born 1951.  He translates his prizewinning work from Euskara (Basque) into Spanish, and the title of this excellent novel means The Things of Obaba.)

The Crippled Dancer by T Obinkaram Echewa (Nigerian writer born 1940, published in the old Heinemann African writer series)

The Years by Virginia Woolf (1882-1941. If you haven’t seen the film version of Mrs Dalloway with Vanessa Redgrave and Michael Kitchen, you are in for a remarkable treat)

Pubis Angelical by Manuel Puig (Argentinian writer, 1932-1990. Famous for 1976 novel Kiss of a Spider Woman filmed in 1985 with William Hurt and Raul Julia)

Carmelite Nuns by Georges Bernanos (1888-1948. Devout Roman Catholic with monarchist leanings. Originally this was an aborted screenplay about the 1794 history of the Compiegne martyrs. Turned into a film in 1960)

Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

Against the Stream by James Hanley (stylistically innovative Liverpudlian author of the notorious Boy prosecuted for obscenity in the 1930s. He is brother of the fine novelist Gerald Hanley)

Redhill Rococo by Shena Mackay (Scottish author born 1944. I realise that though no great fan of hers I have read a great deal of of her stuff. Very odd)

Farewell Companions by James Plunkett (1920-2003. Author of famous 1969 Strumpet City, a searing and excellent novel about Dublin politics and poverty up until the lockout of 1913. He was also a Telefis Eireann producer in the 1960s)

The Circus Animals by James Plunkett (1990 novel. His short stories are also very good, and are published by Poolbeg Press)

Landscape Painted With Tea by Milorad Pavic (1929-2009. Innovative Belgrade novelist whose works like those of Georges Perec used dictionaries, puzzles etc. Best known for Dictionary of the Khazars)

The Silent Duchess by Dacia Maraini (born 1936 and winner of Formentor Prize for 1963 The Age of Discontent. She was the daughter of a Sicilian princess, and spent time in a WW2 prison camp, after her parents went to Japan to escape Italian Fascism. Maraini is a terrific and intelligent writer who should be better known in the UK)

The Reprieve by Jean-Paul Sartre (part of the Roads to Freedom trilogy)

The Bachelors by Henry de Montherlant (1895-1972. Astringent and brilliant author expelled from school for a homosexual relationship, then decorated for bravery after WW1. He was badly beaten up in the street in 1968 and made blind in one eye. He committed suicide with first cyanide and then a single gunshot)

The Horseman on the Roof by Jean Giono (1895-1970. One of my favourite writers from Manosque, Provence. I enjoyed the film adaptation of this novel with Depardieu even though it got a scurvy and absurd 2 stars in the Radio Times listings)

Chaos and Night by Henry de Montherlant

Abbe Mouret’s Transgression by Emile Z ola

The Shadow Line by Joseph Conrad

Loving Without Tears by Molly Keane (aka MJ Farrell, all of her works available in Virago Classics. Another of my favourite writers, with immense comic acuity when it comes to characterisation)

Misericordia by Benito Perez Galdos (prolific 19thC Spanish author whose work was filmed by Luis Bunuel)

The Mandarin by Eca de Queiroz (the great Portuguese author had a strong line in anticlericalism both here and in The Sin of Father Amaro, once serialised by Spanish TV)

Dust Raising by Christopher Burns (very gifted Cumbrian author whose 1986 debut was Snakewrist)

Guilty River by Wilkie Collins (1824-1889. Lifelong friend and collaborator with Charles Dickens and author of The Moonstone. It was a school bully who forced him to tell stories who set the ball rolling so to speak)

Therese by Francois Mauriac (the previous year I read 7 of his novels in a row. Enough said)

On The Contrary by Andre Brink (1935-2015. Like Breyten  Breytenbach, one of the die Sestigers or Sixtyers among South African authors, who chose to write in Afrikaans in order to challenge apartheid)

The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester (very funny and very well written novel by a London Review of Books luminary)

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg (Danish writer born 1957. This 1992 novel was an international success and was filmed by Bille August. He published nothing between 1996 and 2006 when his new novel The Quiet Girl was accused of being too complex and too postmodern)

The Pyramid by Ismail Kadare (born 1936. Virtuoso allegory about totalitarianism by the great Albanian writer who I interviewed the following year in Paris)

The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie (born 1947. I enjoyed this very much, and more so than Midnight’s Children)

The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann (1901-1990. 1936 novel which was filmed for TV in 1983 with Joanna Lumley. Her first book the 1927 Dusty Answer depicted openly gay relationships at Cambridge and was a succes de scandale. Her actor sister Beatrix also published some fine fiction)

Unholy Ghosts by Richard Zimler (born 1956. Early novel by American writer living Portugal whose 1996 Last Kabbalist of Lisbon was London’s best-selling paperback at one stage)

Sylvestre Bonnard by Anatole France (1844-1924. Nobel winner 1921 and an outspoken socialist, atheist and supporter of the Russian revolution. Little read nowadays but George Orwell declared him to be a highly readable writer)

Shirley by Charlotte Bronte (I seem to remember this important novel starts with 3 pompous curates)

The Smell of Hay by Giorgio Bassani (1916-2000. Italian author of Jewish extraction famous for his 1962 novel The Garden of the Finzi Continis which was made into a 1970 film)

The Magic of a Line by Laura Knight (1877-1970. 1965 work by eminent English artist who painted the Nuremberg trials)

Prague Tales by Jan Neruda (1844- 1891. Leader of Czech Realism school, novelist, poet and dramatist who was declared a Traitor to the Nation in 1871)

Mazurka for Two Dead Men by Jose Cela (I reread this novel by the Nobel winner recently and thought it awful)

Rituals by Cees Nooteboom (innovative Dutch writer born 1933. His surname means Nut-tree)

The Year of the Flood by Eduardo Mendoza (leading Catalan writer born 1943)

Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (1875-1955. Nobel winner 1929 and this is his 1901 novel. During WW2 he lived in exile in the USA)

The Lone Man by Bernardo Atxaga(Spain’s best known Basque writer. His name is pronounced At-chagger)

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