In early June I had work in Singapore. My 13-year-old son Felix didn’t need to be at school during my trip so I took him along. To see the world through the eyes of a 13 year old is a salutary experience. We walked along the side of the Macritchie Reservoir, an important source of water surrounded by tropical jungle. To my amazement Felix spotted a swimming monitor lizard and a mesmerizing and venomous Oriental Whip Snake which I had to restrain him from handling. We also stepped through a troop of Macaque monkeys.
More wildlife but less exotic perhaps. Standing, staring and thinking of nothing in particular my eyes tuned into the movements of a pair of blackbirds in our local green space known as Athlone Gardens just at the northern end of Portobello Road. The mother or female was gathering cherries which had fallen and were ripe. She would take one and then fly to the gloom of a dense thicket and peck and tear at the fruit until only the pip remained. At this point the routine started again. She was so absorbed that I could approach to within a couple of feet without her noticing.
Five hundred yards from Athlone Gardens and at the corner of Trellick Tower and Golborne Road and running as far as the Great Western Road is Elkstone Road – bare, unassuming, bleak. Half way along is the Sport London Benfica. This is a warehouse which serves as a Portuguese social club affiliated to the football team of the same name. I’ve passed it a thousand times and most of the time the place is closed or, at least, there is no visible sign of life. But sometimes when the sun is shining the forecourt of this industrial unit is obscured by waves of smoke rising from a huge barbeque. Perhaps a hundred people stand and sit before tables loaded with Frango no Churasco and Chorizo assado and bottles of beer and wine. You can hear the laughter and shouting from miles away.
Reading A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates (1724) by Captain Charles Johnson, I learn that the word barbeque comes from the French pirates’ tendency to spit roast their captives. This was achieved by pushing a stick through the poor man from the Barbe (beard) to the Que (Tail or Arse) and gently rotating over a fire. The French have always taken cooking very seriously, even in tropical climes.
Overheard as I was leaving my office today. Two Golborne women with hardened, fake-tanned faces walking side by side. One forty, one thirty. The thirty-year-old said “my brother got out of prison in April and it only took him four weeks to get a passport. There ain’t no problem at the passport office!”.
Also overheard later the same day in Brompton… A beautiful black woman wearing jodhpurs and with long straightened hair is walking next to a man in a light coloured summer weight suit, an eye patch and using a crutch. As they pass I hear her say to him in a broad London accent “I don’t care what you say or do I’m never rolling around in that bed for you no more.”
Talking of affairs of the heart, I was driving along the green streets of Holland Park with my two sons in the car. They were talking, arguing, teasing. Late afternoon. Sun shining through trees. Light and shadow dancing together on stucco walls. Two well-dressed men locked in a passionate, romantic embrace. Everyone in the car looks. There is no break in the conversation.
I am frequently struck by how anything like genuine enthusiasm is regarded as a kind of mental illness in England. Words like ‘passion’, ‘love’ and ‘addicted’ are all used to impart a kind of quality of enthusiasm on the user but the truth of those words seem to be at odds with the reality. We are a pragmatic race and deep, private and quietly held enthusiasms run contrary to our sense of purpose.
Last week I was in need of a good man who knew his way around a drain. I was grateful to find Chris, who was competent, compact and spoke in a strong southern Irish accent with some passion about his work. Suddenly he turned to me and asked: “Or youse Jewish?” I stammered a reply along the lines of my ‘Jewish background’ etc. To which Chris replied: “Oi tort so! Only Jews have pianos in der front rooms”. I was taken aback by the logic and insight of his remark, but not offended. Chris proceeded: “Oi’ve got seven sisters and foive brudders and all of ‘em play musical instruments”.
“What do you play?” I asked tentatively. “Me? Nuttin.” That seemed to be the end of the conversation.