19 June 2010

José Saramago died yesterday, aged 87. He was born the same year as my grandmother, and a village registrar in the Ribatejo gave him – according to the Nobel laureate’s autobiography he wrote in 1998 – a start in life worthy of any of his characters:

José de Sousa would have been my own name had not the Registrar, on his own inititiave added the nickname by which my father’s family was known in the village: Saramago. I should add that saramago is a wild herbaceous plant, whose leaves in those times served at need as nourishment for the poor.

Saramago published his first novel at 25, fifteen uncomfortable years into the Salazar dictatorship; returned to fiction in his fifties, after Portugal’s democratic revolution. All The Names: an archive containing records on every inhabitant of a city who had ever lived. The History of the Siege of Lisbon: a proofreader rewrites national myth. Blindness (or An Essay about Blindness, as he’d rather the title had gone): the world loses its sight. Seeing: the voters in an election all hand in blank papers. (The British public nearly pulled that one this year.)

It’s alienating, reading his books in English. How much in the narration comes from him, and how much from his translators, Giovanni Pontiero and Margaret Jull Costa? You hope that he’d appreciate the extra layer of ambiguity on top of all the rest that he put in.

In my late teens and early twenties, Saramago was one of the most important writers in my reading life. (As these things often went ten years ago, I first picked up one of his books after an electrifying weekend involving a girl from Portugal who probably didn’t realise half of what was going on. I’ve no idea what happened to her after that. The most important thing was that, long after I’d even forgotten how to spell her surname, I kept reading the books.)

Learning to navigate their style – these weren’t books for the bus stop – opened up a worldview dominated by history, bureaucracy, fragile individuality and even more fragile social order. I learned more things stories could be about.

I first read The Stone Raft not long after the last humanitarian crisis had spun out of former Yugoslavia’s systemic collapse. The Iberian peninsula drifts into the sea, a crisis met with public outbursts of emotion and governmental indifference in the rest of Europe; most of the 1990s had seemed to be like that. I was amazed to turn to the copyright page and discover he had written it in 1986.

Eyjafjallajökull was one for Saramago. He held on long enough to see it by two months. And ultimately – with the surveillance state andthe digital trails we leave and a bloody great hole in the world underneath the sea – we all turned out to be living inside his books.



17 June 2010

I’m going to have to give up on another house plant. Maybe I should have done it weeks ago and taken it outside in the dark without my neighbours saying: ‘What do you do to those?’

When they head off for beach holidays somewhere sunnier on the South Coast or family reunions in Poland, I don’t anticipate being asked to come in and water theirs. I even own a sickly cactus. Yes, a cactus.

I keep being promised ferns and spider plants from other people’s houses, but keep forgetting to go round with a bag large enough to take them home. It’s probably for the ferns’ own good.

The only plant I can’t harm is called a dracaena. That really does mean ‘dragon plant’, as consolation. It’s third in a list of ‘Houseplants You Can’t Kill‘, along with the Christmas cactus and the spider plant. Some other plants in the genus Dracaena produce a red resin that really is called dragon’s blood. I’ve ended up with three of different kinds. One is the only survivor of a house plant generation when I went on holiday for Easter and forgot about them.

Once, I helped raise a cat from kittenhood. When did I stop being able to care for something that doesn’t even move?

At least it’s an excuse for me to decorate the house with dragon plants.

Teaser Tuesday 17

15 June 2010

This is how it works:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) ‘teaser’ sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  • You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your ‘teaser’ from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!
  • Please avoid spoilers!

The Double by José Saramago this week. It’s difficult to excerpt Saramago’s unique style for a teaser of a few lines long, so this sentence is possibly quite an imperfect pick…

The headmaster’s glasses were now safely in his top jacket pocket and he was saying, smiling, Off we go then, and Tertuliano Máximo Afonso will be unable to explain now or ever why the air seems to have thickened, as if impregnated with an invisible presence, as intense and powerful as the one that roused him brusquely from his bed after watching that first video.  (p. 69)


14 June 2010

After the first World Cup weekend, you probably know what one is. The questions have moved on to ‘Is FIFA going to ban them before the World Cup final?’ and ‘How many baby girls are going to be named after it during the next month?’

I’m disconcerted by the honking noise. I’m resisting signing up to all the Facebook groups instructing the president of FIFA where to stick his vuvuzela. I’m afraid I’m probably not watching quite as much live football as I might have done.

Nearly a thousand Guardian readers have already commented on the paper’s latest vuvuzela article. Reading the first few, I wonder whether part of the problem is: vuvuzelas disrupt the genre conventions of what Europeans expect to get out of a football match.

Crowd noise in European football culture ebbs and flows. The chants swell when the attackers approach goal or one person on the pitch offends fifty thousand people’s suddenly-agreed morality. Some teams have their bands – a brass band known to accompany Sheffield Wednesday to every knock-out match; the Dutch equivalent which got stuck on Aida for all of 1998 – but not to the level of this wall of sound. Just going by sound recorded from the crowd, you could timeline the excitements of the match with a fair degree of accuracy. I can read a novel during a boring game, look up whenever the crowd signal I ought to be excited and never miss a beat.

With vuvuzelas blaring start to finish, nothing accompanies a change of pace. It’s like a murder novel with the bodies missing.

Yet: if a team from another and less equal continent came to a tournament in chanting Europe and complained the crowd noise distracted viewers at home, would they be indulged? No? Then we need to shut up about the vuvuzelas.

Besides, how many other stories like the striking, underpaid stadium stewards have we missed because we’re all het up about the plastic horns?


13 June 2010

All right, that’s one piece of work revitalised (I hope) and sent on its way, so that I now have five short stories on the market again for the first time in a couple of months. Even though my real in-tray at the office is going to be just as full when I go back tomorrow, I still have half a dozen un-replied-to emails and the corrections I owe somebody in another country are shaping up to be non-fashionably late, I somehow feel as if I have a lot less to do.

Now I can relax, maybe, and watch some football.


Now I can watch some football, anyway.

Except that I’m still thinking about what I made the mother in one of the short stories do, even now that I’ve submitted it…


11 June 2010












9 June 2010

I’ve never seen what my road looks like when England have qualified for a major football tournament. Two years ago, the team fluffed qualification for the European Championships, and during the last World Cup I was living somewhere else.

The flag-to-car-corner ratio is high. Even the flag-to-balcony ratio is rising from its general democratic baseline, zero.

I don’t even know who all the teams in the World Cup are. I could never have said that before. When I dug my sweepstake entry from the Quality Street tin belonging to the nice lady at work, my first response to the also-rans I pulled out was: ‘Is that country in it?’

Football was more exciting when I was younger than the players. In the early nineties, thanks to top-trump cards, I knew a fair proportion of the birth years of the top-trump-worthy footballers in the English Premier League. Their adulthood was anchored reassuringly in the sixties and seventies, where grown-ups came from.

In fact, sometimes they weren’t very grown up. Today’s captain of Manchester United was part of a squad brought up from the youth team in 1994 or thereabouts who infamously caused a defender-turned-pundit on the BBC to say, ‘You’ll never win anything with kids.’ A decade and a half later, he looks – well, he looks like a tweeker, actually. I’m really sorry.

I learned an extra layer of European geography from UEFA Cup ties: Vigo, Cagliari, Olomouc. The league globalised and – in that sweet spot where stars were the same age as me – bought in exciting, androgynous boys. Now those pretty fine-boned youths have grown broad shoulders and full beards. Elizabethan theatre-goers – Athenians, even – must have had the same complaint.

People who were teen idols when I went to school are now retiring. And the crease between my eyebrow and my nose, these days, could almost hold a thin pencil tight on its own.