What We Did on our Holidays

We went to the south of Portugal, as for the last two years, to stay with our friends Rob and Ines. As last time we drove down so that Bella the dog could accompany us. She won’t fly. We decided to do it properly this time and take four weeks.

We took the Tunnel and stopped the first night out at a chateau in the Loire valley. It looked like a birthday cake and the grounds around it were covered with improbable technicolour flowers so that one expected to see Bambi lurking shyly at the end of a path through the forest. We were so taken up with the general splendour that we booked dinner in the main restaurant. We thought that we might try the degustation menu.

“We will attend with the dog,” we said.

Mais, non. The dog is excluded. Desolé.”

“But you are French. The French like very much les chiens, and particularly les chiennes.”

“We love, assuredly. But it is the Americans. Desolé.”

We negotiated a compromise. We sat degusting at a French window giving onto the balcony. Bella sat companionably just outside, soaking up the evening sunlight. The waiter brought her water and delicious titbits. The Americans sat at the other tables in their crisp cotton trousers and their hair pieces. They still snarled.

The less said about Valladolid, the second stop, the better.

When we got to Portugal and to Rob and Ines’ quinta, the sun shone down mercilessly. Why anyone would expect mercy from a celestial body billions of miles away is a mystery, but even so it was notable by its absence. The better half took Bella surfing in the sea. There are massive and relentless Atlantic breakers there. Bella had worked out a few tricks in her mind in the twelve months since last year. People stopped to watch. ‘It is Swims Like Seals,’ they would say. ‘Her reputation precedes her.’ Ines filmed her. I stayed out of the sun writing the great Alablague novel. Rob attended to war games involving General David Lunch and his army of thrice-dried figs; he has abandoned for the time being his ambition of covering the outside of his quinta with Native American art. In the evenings we would eat delicious food, often involving just-caught fish from the market at Olhão, and drink immoderately. We had a splendid time. Much of it you can see on Facebook, if you know how.

It was time to go. By way of a change we had decided to drive to Bilbao and get a boat to Portsmouth. We broke the journey at Porto, and stayed there for a couple of days in a rented apartment in the Old Town, much of which is medieval. Porto is a magic city, ramshackle, romantic and dangerous. The sides of the Douro, the river that runs through it, are improbably high, so that as you sit at some café trams rumble past high above you. They eat delicious cod – bacalhau – there, and of course there is the port.

After dinner we set out to explore the Old Town. We took a path that involved climbing a thousand steps. At the end I fancied a rest, but we were faced by a youth with a cosh: no one else was in sight.

“Nice dog,” he said meaningfully.

“She bites,” the better half said – in demotic Portuguese.


He let us through. Again, Bella’s reputation had preceded her.

In Bilbao we stayed at a businessmen’s hotel. They scurried about with their Alexei Sayle suits and their wheely suitcases, talking into their mobile phones, saying things like, ‘It’s a very tight time-frame for delivery.’ Goodness, I thought, I remember all that nonsense.

Because it was Bilbao we went to see the Guggenheim Museum, the metal-encased construction by Frank Geary with art inside, which has apparently inspired the regeneration of that part of the city: Bilbao by and large is faceless and industrial.

The building is flashy and nice in a look-at-me-Mummy way. Inside it is very impressive, with curvy walls and walkways high above you. I think that they have decided that painting is dead, because there are not a lot of straight walls that one might hang anything traditional on. They had some ten enormous Serra constructions, which were marvellous but perhaps seven too many. There was a large show of the usual stuff from Basquiat, and Jeff Koons had just closed and was being removed in large vans. So much for Basque culture.

There are two boats from Bilbao. One is small and you can take your dog in your cabin and the other is big, has stabilisers, and the dog goes in a kennel. Of course we chose the small one, which bobbed around like a cork. A man said to me, ‘I’m a truck driver, and I do this run all the time, but you can certainly feel the swell tonight.’

(The ship is so small that one is forced to hob-nob with passengers who are in trade.)

Anyway the wind dropped and the next morning it was like a millpond – whatever that is. However, just as we were passing the extremities of the Breton peninsula there was an incident. We were required to attend at the lifeboats. Unfortunately there was not enough room for us all, so pets, Italians (something to do with an EU opt-out) and staff below the grade of Assistant Purser had to swim. It was heart-breaking to see them bobbing around in the water, giving, in the case of the pets and Italians, little cries; the staff, to whom it had been explained that being required to swim was part of their terms of employment, behaved with admirable dignity. We were all right. I placed Bella beneath my t-shirt; ‘Make way for the fat man,’ they said. Moreover, the better half placed our three passports under her t-shirt, so when we were rescued we were able to proceed on our way home without let or hindrance.


Hail, Sturgeonia!

We are staying in the People’s Republic of Sturgeonia. We meant to enter through Berwick-on-Tweed, with its bridges celebrated in art, but apparently the A1 was shut; the satnav took us through deserted valleys and past uninterested sheep and lonely peaks. It was so deserted that I wondered whether we would spot the Border; there are no machine gun posts yet. In fact there was a cairn, with ‘Scotland’ on it and a boy vomiting against the side. He was vomiting on the Scottish side. I don’t know if it was a gesture – for all I know the other side of the cairn says ‘England’. We did not investigate but drove on towards Edinburgh and arrived at midnight.

Edinburgh strives bravely to please the tourist but its heart is not in it. We had booked a self-catering flat. It was the meanest bit of space that I have encountered since I was in New York and people there would boast of similarly exiguous and cabbage-smelling accommodation. In each case the excuse was location, and indeed we could look out of the barred windows onto at least one murder site from the novels of Ian Rankin. On the table was the book of rules. After perfunctorily welcoming us to the great city in which we were privileged to be resting our heads, it told us at length what we were not permitted to do. ‘PENALTY: £100’, it would say, or, in one case, ‘PENALTY: £500’. That I think that was for spilling Irn Bru on the carpet.

Bella, the dog, needed to relieve herself before retiring. She has a foible about this: she will only do it on grass, unless she is in Portugal. Portugal is an exception as there is very little grass there. It is like Buddhists being allowed to eat meat in Tibet. There is grass in Edinburgh but it is locked up at night. We wandered the streets looking for a blade or two on which she could deposit one of her small and elegant effusions. It was all put away behind iron railings. She became embarrassed. Finally we broke into the National Gallery and found a patch there: in the grounds, obviously, not inside, in front of the Reverend whatever skating, or any of their other masterpieces.

Edinburgh is the subject of an interesting social experiment. The aim is that fifty per cent of the population should be traffic wardens. If you look around you, you will see that they are well on the way to achieving this exciting target. Furthermore, there is a new law to the effect that it is an offence to block the view between a traffic warden and any car in which the warden might reasonably be considered to be taking a professional interest. As a result the roads are occupied by the much-admired new trams and by Americans in kilts trudging glumly up to the Castle, while the pavements are full of traffic wardens, preening themselves and lovely in yellow.

On we drove, past the wonderful Forth rail bridge and the site of yet another road bridge in the process of being built, and onto the A9. This is the road that takes you out of the Central Belt north from Perth and on as far as you want: even as far as John O’Groats. The A9 is a difficult road. It has two lanes for most of its length and you get stuck behind lorries and caravans. The radio signal goes and Radio 4 turns to white noise. There is money for another road bridge for the Central Belt, but not for communications in the Highlands.

The view of the Cairngorms is stupendous – or was. These days it is difficult to see the Cairngorms as the roadside is littered with official signs. These announce enterprising new traffic-calming projects, remind you of the speed limit and inform you that policemen are operating in unmarked cars. (Operating? On whom?) There are endless speed cameras.

And now we are in the Highlands and there is a problem with rubbish. I wish that there was an agreed standard about what could be put into which bin. There are two bins. There is a sign on one of them that tells you that various things are not welcome, and another sign to the effect that if you put the wrong things in the wrong bin they won’t take them away: on a second offence they would throw it all through your bedroom window with a foul cry. We put the bottles (there had been family merriment) in the bin that did not say that bottles were forbidden. Half an hour later the neighbour deposited the bottles back on our doorstep with a note. It was in capitals and underlined, like the anonymous notes that one gets accusing one of sodomising the vicar’s cat. It was to the effect that bottles were not welcome at all. They were to be taken to the supermarket.

I resisted the temptation to shove them, open end dripping, through the neighbour’s bedroom window with a foul cry. This was wise, as half an hour later she set out up the hill with a wheelbarrow containing, I am fairly certain, her murdered lover. Certainly she trudged glumly back with wheelbarrow empty and the lover has not been seen since. What might I have seen if I had looked in!

Instead, we drove with the bottles the twelve-mile trip to the supermarket and back, thus solving climate change at a stroke.

I am sitting with the sun setting over the western mountains. (I am writing but not posting, as there is no broadband.) There is little human between us and Canada. The landscape is immense. It ruminates as it settles into the night. Otherwise it is absolutely silent. I hope that they let us continue to come here. I love it and it feels like home. And I hope that they grow out of their current mood of institutional bossiness.

Which Geronimo?

We have reached the time of year where people inevitably start to intone about its being the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.

So it might be and so it might not. There either are ‘mists’ or there aren’t, it seems to me, and what happens in Plaistow when the westerly wind gathers up all the filth from the West End and dumps it on us is best described by some other noun. ‘Mellow fruitfulness’ is more problematical. ‘Mellow’, at any rate for those of us who lived through the nineteen-sixties, is a word that denotes a state of mind, usually brought on by inhalation of the more old-fashioned narcotics, that is benignly fuddled to the point of silence: a state that is pleasant for oneself and boring for everyone else. The only problem with ‘fruit’ is that most of that has come and gone by the time autumn arrives. Strawberries for instance are particularly associated with Wimbledon, at the start of the summer. Did the poet (Keats & Shelley, I recall) have conkers in mind? Probably too hearty. Blackberries? Insufficiently mellow. That only really leaves apples.

But mellow apples? It doesn’t really make sense, does it? Maybe Keats & Shelley meant not ‘mellow’ but ‘yellow’ apples, indicating that French Golden Delicious – yellow fruitfulness – were meant rather than red English Coxes. For what it is worth, their fellow versifier Wordsworth was keen on all things French and wrote a poem to that effect (Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, etc…) though whether this extended to their revolting apples I forget.

All that puts me in mind, by way of contrast, of Rob’s quinta in the south of Portugal, where, very far from mist and mellow fruitfulness, the late summer sun shines fiercely on the whitewashed walls and the twice-dried figs are intense and tasty and as unlike French Golden Delicious as it’s possible for a fruit to be. Or so I remember it all, and so I imagine that it still does and they still are: it can’t have changed that much in under a week

Now I think of it, Keats & Shelley probably meant mushrooms, a truly autumnal crop to whose mellow qualities another poetic chum, Coleridge, may well have introduced them, maybe as a device for keeping more of the opium – the good stuff – for himself. A good mushroom does after all foster a feeling of mellowness in every sense, whether it is eaten raw in a field to the accompaniment of repetitive music and thousands of people dancing, or taken on toast, or fried in butter as a component of a full English breakfast. It is not strictly speaking a fruit, but Keats & Shelley were bound by the rules of poetic metre, unlike the idle and half-witted vers libre merchants of today, and ‘mellow mycologicality’ just wouldn’t have scanned.

Bringing Rob’s quinta to mind raises in more urgent form the question that will have been troubling persistent readers: why would I want him to take his whitewashed walls on which the late summer sun shines so satisfactorily and cover them with a reproduction of a member – or members – of the Native American community?

All I can say is that it has been an aspiration of mine for as long as I can remember. Every time in my life that I have acquired a house with garden walls I have proposed to my current life’s companion that one of them should be covered by an artistic representation of a member – or members – of the Native American community. Every time, I could already see the image in my mind’s eyes, brooding over the herbaceous border, gazing hawk-eyed towards Isleworth or wherever it was. Every time, this proposal has been rejected with a snort. When therefore I made it to Rob, expecting the usual response but fired up by a mental image of a noble head, a corona of eagles’ feathers, twice life-sized, flaring above his zinc outdoor dining table, I was surprised and delighted when rather than snorting he asked, ‘Which member – or members – of the Native American community?’

”Possibly Geronimo, possibly Buffy Ste. Marie, possibly both,” I said breathlessly.

He gave this answer a full measure of consideration.

“Buffy Ste. Marie goes without saying,” he said. “She is not only a fine-looking person, fit to be represented in a mural, but an icon for our times and a role model for all who pass through my quinta in the years to come. A scrutiny of the tracks available on Spotify confirms that she is the only member of the coffee-house generation of Greenwich Village in the early nineteen-sixties to have preserved her integrity throughout the period since and still to be making provocative and ravishing music today. And I include Dylan. But – Geronimo the Bedonkohe Apache Chief or Geronimo the friend of El Cid and latterly quisling Bishop of Salamanca?

“Possibly both.”

“Maybe it could be the Apache – but with a crozier.”

Ines, Rob’s wife, and Lucy, who was also staying with us, both of whom have a facility with draughtsmanship that Rob and I lack, were asked to consider design possibilities. As a temporary measure we bought from an Ecuadorian gypsy, whom we encountered at a fair in the local town, a cheap representation of a Chief, done on cloth, and we attached it loosely to two poles and placed them against the whitewashed walls. This served as a warning against undue speed. First, when the wind got up, the cloth tore away from the poles. Secondly, once one had noticed that one of the man’s shoulders was twice the length of the other it spoilt one’s enjoyment of the overall effect.

And then we met the members of the Cherokee-Portuguese community on the beach and the planning went up a level altogether.

Back in London, brooding on Keats & Shelley’s mellow mushrooms, a connection struck me. I texted Rob:

“Oh, and Carlos Castaneda’s friend.”

Norbert Dentressangle and the Perfect Wave

Portugal is full of exiles. Notoriously, many are British. Some of these are not a savoury sight, clad in grubby shorts, flushed red in face and eye, sitting in bars to which Portuguese people no longer go and complaining. Less well known and much more dignified is a small group of Cherokee ancestry, who live near the beach to which we went. They speak a strange patois, half Cherokee and half Portuguese. Rob has acquired a nodding acquaintance with this tongue, which may prove invaluable for artistic reasons which I will come to later. He was therefore able to understand that some of these people, who had come to the beach to watch Bella surf, had given her a name according to their own tradition. They call her ‘Swims Like Seals’.

As we drove back to England, Swims Like Seals lay in the back seat of the car, morosely dreaming of the Perfect Wave.

The better half has an ‘app’ on her phone, which tells us where to go. A helpful man describes the towns and roads along our route. He is not strong on the pronunciation of foreign place names but he does his best. ‘Castile’, for example, perhaps the proudest word in a proud language, is rendered as ‘car stealer’. Nonetheless he is generally reliable. He took us off the motorway to see the centre of Rouen, but that was quite nice as we could then say that we had seen the cathedral. The worst bit was in Seville, where at the critical moment the connection died. You might imagine Seville: timeless, stiflingly hot, silent, the smell of the orange groves and the muffled peal of cathedral bells; a tradition of cruelty, mystery and faith. The Seville bypass, though, on which we found ourselves mid-morning on a Monday, was not like that. Huge lorries hurtled by us as we hove to on the hard shoulder; the better half gripped the steering wheel as if it were the throat of the nice man from the ‘app’ and shouted, explaining that it was all my fault. But we sorted it out: we looked at a map.

The motorways, as in England, were full of lorries. They all look similar, same number of wheels in the same places – no doubt as a result of EU regulation – except for the dressing. This includes irritating cartoon figures and improbable advertising claims. As a result I always find the vehicles of Norbert Dentressangle reassuring. They are a sober claret colour, and decoration is confined to his name and website address. There is a modest logo, a road device cleverly incorporating the letters ‘ND’. One can imagine Norbert being bullied into this by an alliance of his eldest son, Jean-Hippolyte Dentressangle – more imaginative than sound perhaps – and his accountant.

“You have to move with the times, ND,” they may have said.

“Go on, then,” he would have replied gruffly – or ‘Va t’en’, as they say in French.

I imagine Norbert as taking an old-fashioned and fatherly interest in the welfare of his drivers. He can’t relax at night until he knows that they have all arrived at their destinations and are accounted for. Preferably in his view this means tucked up in bed, although he knows that for those travelling through Spain the attractions of the roadside ‘hotels’ in that country – thinly disguised brothels – may have been irresistible and some of the lads may not be tucked up in their own beds at all but pumping away at some lazy Spanish whore. Norbert takes the view that ‘boys will be boys’ but he doesn’t mention the Spanish ‘hotels’ to Mme Dentressangle.

“Come to bed, Norbert,” she calls, kindly if perhaps a touch impatiently.

He sighs and closes his big ledger. He taps it reflectively with his big haulier’s fingers and then goes upstairs to join her.

What is it, incidentally, about the Spanish? They really have become rather unbuttoned. Whatever happened to Catholic repression? We stopped at one point to get something to eat. The sign on the road had suggested a sensible motorway facility with a choice of M&S or Burger King. Instead it took us to an appalling inn, where, because Bella was a health and safety issue, I had to stand with her in the rain outside while lorry drivers puffed the smoke from vile-coloured stogies at me. The better half went in to get a slice of sausage and some chips and she reported later that the bar was full of members of the sex-worker community, presumably waiting until the drivers had finished their sausage and their smoking and needed relief.

Of course my musings about the Dentressangle family are probably wide of the mark. Maybe ‘Norbert’ is not a Christian name at all but a surname recording a merger or acquisition at some stage involving Norbert interests and Dentressangle ones. And the name ‘Dentressangle’ gives one some pause. What can its derivation be? Presumably ‘dent’ or ‘tooth’ is involved, and ‘étrangler’ or ‘strangle’. That would be a concern. No doubt a visit to the website would clarify all, but one would rather not: one would rather live with one’s dreams.

Anyway it provided an hour’s distraction as we bowled along through the anodyne landscape of Les Landes. Swims Like Seals slept on. Rob, I like to think, has already benefitted from his fortuitous introduction to the members of the Cherokee-Portuguese community. During our time at his house I urged him to relieve the plain white of his veranda wall with a large mural painting of a member – or members – of the Native American community: possibly Geronimo, possibly Buffy Ste. Marie, possibly both. I was surprised and pleased that he liked this proposal: ‘took it on board’, as we are encouraged to say these days. I like to think that even now he is crouched with one or more of them on the beach, examining rough drawings in the sand: an aquiline eye here, a feather there.


We are in the south of Portugal, staying with Rob, whom persistent readers have met before, Ines his wife and Joca, his dog, who kills snakes. It is the fourteenth anniversary of the fortuitous but well-starred day when the better half and I first met in New York. Furthermore, this morning (as I write but not, in the absence of WiFi, post) the preservation of the Union was announced, a matter greeted here with quiet satisfaction. The first dog’s ashes are scattered on Dornoch Firth, the better half has a plan to scatter mine there too in the fullness of time and it would have been distressing for her to have had to submit the little urn to the scrutiny of sneering border thugs, booted and kilted.

The better half is shouting over the telephone at some dozy apparatchik in the office of an aspiring English public school. The reasons are too complicated to relate. She expresses the view that doziness might be acceptable in one of the ancient public schools but less so in one hoping to join their ranks one day and in the meantime clinging on to such reputation as it has by its rouble-buffed finger nails.

Some of the figs that Rob grew during the summer are drying on a wall. During the night it rained heavily, the heavens matching sympathetically (or as it might be imagined sympathetically) the coursing of tears down the Salmondian cheeks. When this happens he dries them (the figs not the cheeks) individually, singing to himself a song from the ‘Canterbury Sound’ of the late nineteen sixties or seventies. They then become ‘twice-dried figs’ (the Portuguese phrase escapes me) which are a considerable delicacy here.

Life is as it should be on holiday.

We took the Eurotunnel and drove down. We spent nights at Deauville, Biarritz and Salamanca. Biarritz we thought would have an understated elegance redolent of the Edwardian era. However that turned out to be Deauville: Biarritz was full of surfers and young people asserting their right to boogie.

Deauville did have understated elegance. They were having a festival of American Film. There were posters for it everywhere; unrecognised starlets posed for photographs on the beach. It was remarkable that none of the posters referred to any individual film or even star. It was American Film pour soi and en soi that was to be celebrated. How French, we thought, smugly. Because it was a minor festival, unlike, say, that at Cannes, there was only one hooker to go round, but she was a game one, with her little shorts and her shirt unbuttoned to the waist, parading up and down with a man who may have been her pimp: equally he may just have been a friend.

A century and a half ago Deauville was painted extensively by Eugene Boudin, its beaches crowded with ladies in crinolines and little tents with bright flags. Boudin is one of my favourite minor painters and the only one named after a blood-based culinary product.

In France Bella was welcomed in hotels and restaurants. When we arrived at the latter we would be ushered to a table, inside or outside as we preferred, and the waiter would bring her a bowl of water together with the menu. The further south we got the more that changed. In Spain she was regarded with obvious reservations and in Portugal with undisguised hatred. The Portuguese word for ‘dog’ is ‘cow’ (no doubt it is spelled differently) and cows are not welcome where people go.

Salamanca, apart from its frosty way with dogs, was special. It is the fourth oldest university in Europe, after the Sorbonne, Oxford and Bologna. Cambridge, The University of the South Bank and the others came rather later. The university buildings are of honey-coloured stone, just like Oxford but not crumbly. In the bright light of the Central Iberian Plain they look like Renaissance paintings, or stage sets. Salamanca is also the world centre (if one rejects the claims of Burgos, an hour or so up the road) for the imaginative treatment of parts of the pig otherwise thought inedible. I read that it is protected by UNESCO, but whether that is for the honey-coloured buildings or the black pudding I couldn’t establish. We ate morcilla and pig’s cheek for breakfast, lunch and dinner and decided that the better half’s strange regime involving uncooked vegetables could have a short moratorium.

There are if I got it right two cathedrals there, and I went into one and hired the audio-commentary. The best bit was El Cid’s chapel, where the faithful can gaze on the great man’s crucifix. When he went into battle against the Moors he would wave this in the hand that didn’t wield the sword, presumably directing his horse with well-practised knees. El Cid had a tame bishop and confessor called Geronimo, who would ride into battle just behind him. Geronimo also had a crucifix, which you can see today. After El Cid met his sad end, famously appearing one last time dead and strapped to the horse so as to inspire his troops to courage and the enemy to despair, Geronimo cut a deal with the Moors, who allowed him to go on being a bishop so long as he didn’t say anything beastly about Muslims.

The Portuguese may not like Bella but her El Cid-like courage has inspired unwilling respect. She has taken to engaging with the great Atlantic breakers. She swims out into the surf and waits for the big one. For a moment she sinks from sight, then there she is to be seen again, ears first, being borne triumphantly onshore, riding the wave and sleek from the foam. The Portuguese stand around in groups and mutter. I imagine that they are saying, ‘Ah [or some more demotic ejaculation]! There is a dog!’

Of course it might be: ‘Surely there is something in the new EU Health & Safety Regs about foreign cows in our, Portuguese, ocean.’

My Double, the Quite Important Assassin

I mentioned in the last post my double, the quite important assassin. I had not thought about him for some months and that night I did so. I was lying awake in our room in Rob’s farmhouse in Portugal. It was still very hot, but the windows could not be opened for fear of mosquitoes and I found it hard to settle. Next to me the better half was re-living in REM sleep an altercation that she had had with a traffic warden in which the latter had come off second best.

I mused that mosquito is the Portuguese for mosque, or possibly the other way round: that mosque is the Portuguese for mosquito. That was the association with my double: a mosque, in its English meaning, being the scene of one of his most audacious coups.

You might have thought that Bi and Large would have been a more congenial theme for a nocturnal musing, but I hadn’t actually seen them; they were described to me by Rob and the better half, who may have made the whole smutty story up just to get me to the beach.

In about 1960, when the Neapolitan ruffian, no doubt a very junior operative in a large operation, probably indeed little more than a bambino with skinny wrists, originally removed my passport from my father’s Daimler there would have been no occasion for me and my double ever to come across each other. We would have come and gone about our respective businesses and across our borders and no one would have noticed that our passports were, apart from our photographs, identical. Furthermore, as he was to tell me, he used my identity only on important occasions, when acting actually en assassin, keeping five or six Italian passports and other pieces of documentation asserting his citizenship of various other European nations, for more everyday use.

Computers changed all that, of course. During the Nineties I started experiencing delays at passport control while the official checked pieces of paper. Then one day some ten years ago I was summoned into the Little Room.

The Little Room! Fortunately this was not the first time I had been there and I had some idea what to expect. A year or so earlier the better half and I were asked into the Little Room at JFK. Three uniformed Puerto Ricans fingered the triggers on their Lee Enfields (or whatever is the American equivalent) while a young man browbeat the better half and demanded to know her ‘feelings for these United States’.

She said that her feelings were extremely positive and eventually they let us go, though only after she had been required to spit on a photo of Mr Putin which they kept for that purpose and on which the perpetual president’s unwholesome features had inevitably become tarnished by repeated gobbing – and possibly worse. I could see that they were about to require me to do likewise on a representation of Her Majesty, but I fixed them with a look and they backed off.

As we left, the three Puerto Ricans took out their frustrations on some rats which were disporting themselves in the corner of the Little Room, killing five and winging three more.

Anyway, on the second occasion I was by myself, I did not have the better half to protect and it was not at JFK but somewhere half-way civilised: Port-au-Prince, if memory serves.

Fortunately or otherwise, Caribbean French is not one of the dialects in which I am more than adequately versed. No doubt much went over my head. Certain words, assassin, meutre and famille, kept recurring. Specific questions as to my whereabouts on particular dates were fired at me, and with my computerised diary I could give them comprehensive answers. I could see that something bothered them. They kept staring at a photograph and shaking their heads. I could see it on the desk, upside down. Suffice to say that it was not of a pale Englishman.

At last they let me go. Out of pure spite they made me spend the rest of the night in their gaol. The heat and the stench were appalling, but, to be fair, some of the airport hotels around JFK are not of the sort to which one would willingly return.

I resolved to find this man who had caused me all this trouble and – who knew? – could cause me so much more.

From the far reaches of the house came sounds of plumbing’s being exercised. Since Joca has no opposable thumb it must, I reasoned, be Rob having a pee and flushing. I settled into my pillows ready for a treat.

Rob’s house has no mains supply and no well; the water is provided by a Mr Franklin, who has a truck with a tank on the back. Mr Franklin is Portuguese but his name presumably reflects an Anglo-Saxon entanglement at some point in his family’s past, just as men who live in Norfolk are often called Mr Rape or Mr Pillage or some other surname indicating Viking origins.

The water poured into the system from Mr Franklin’s tank en route for Rob’s cistern en suite. A series of rhythmical lurches marked the entry of the water, its being detained by minor airlocks and its overcoming them. Then a series of bass notes sounded, like the opening moves of a cathedral organist embarking on a toccata and fugue. I strained for the last, a very low B Flat which I knew from experience to expect. It was almost too low and too grand to be actually heard: only felt. Finally there was a series of glissandi, caused presumably by the action of air on the pipes as they filled up with water and emptied again. These were of an unearthly beauty, at once sensual and as formal as Bach.

Occasionally during the daytime the loveliness of the sounds would tempt me to flush the lavatory twice, but if I put my hand out to do so I would as often as not feel Joca’s minatory nip at my ankles: Mr Franklin’s water was not a luxury.

Settled as I now was in my bed I felt no such temptation. I was perfectly happy. Bi and Large and my assassin, my double both deserved further consideration, but that could wait until the morning. Finally, I slept.


When I was young my parents would take us on holiday to Europe. This was relatively rare then. Flights were expensive, so we drove in my father’s elderly Daimler. Only once did we fly and that was an impossibly romantic stagger across the Channel with the Daimler in a Bristol Freighter, from Lydd Airport to Le Touquet, a service also employed by James Bond in Goldfinger, with, if memory serves, his 1930s Bentley. Lydd Airport is now called London Ashford Airport, because it is not located anywhere near London or Ashford, and it is no longer impossibly romantic.

We drove south and saw things that our school friends didn’t. We saw Naples when it was still controlled by deep-died ruffians, as opposed to Berlusconi-like smoothies. Indeed they broke into the Daimler as we were having a picnic and stole our passports. My identity was later used by a quite important assassin.

The only problem was the sun and the sea. My parents were sure that both were good for us. The sun burnt my pale post-War flesh. There was no such thing then as Factor 50, only some dubious and runny cream that you got from Boots. My parents were convinced that you couldn’t get burnt after three in the afternoon, and the sea into which they drove us washed even the dubious cream from Boots away. It was pure agony the first day. You knew that the second day it would mutate into a fierce itching, worst on that bit of the back that you couldn’t quite reach to scratch, and on the third the skin would come away in sheets; but this was usually academic as the second and third days were always renewed bouts of the first.

When I left home I resolved that whilst Abroad would still have its place in my life I would never again go on a beach or in the sea. I kept to this resolve until quite recently.

The better half prodded me into returning. On a visit to Amelia Island in Florida (as it happens) she was able to demonstrate that Factor 50 actually worked. I rolled up one trouser leg (rather like my Uncle Edgerton through with very different motivation) and she applied the lotion to my knee. I walked in a gingerly fashion up the beach for ten minutes and then back and was astonished to discover that, afterwards, nothing hurt.

The sea came next. First it was at night, and I still do like the reflections of the town lights in the waves as they break over me. Then I tried it in the daytime too.

Of course there was a setback. We were in Oman and staying at the Chedi. This is one of the most elegant hotels in the world and our friend Rob, who then lived in Oman, had persuaded someone to let us have rooms at an absurdly cheap rate, so cheap that the bill passed muster when eventually presented as an expense to my then law firm. Anyway, at the Chedi you felt immune from all danger, and that was where I went wrong. I let down my guard.

I wandered into the Indian Ocean. It was the temperature of momentarily neglected soup, which is how I like it. The water lapped about my thighs. Suddenly there was a fierce current and I was pulled under. I couldn’t locate the sea bed or the surface. I breathed in water.

His Highness Sultan Qaboos appeared to me. He was hovering there, shimmering, neither in the water nor out of it. He was fingering his khanja just the way he does.

Have strength, my boy, he said – or at any rate appeared to say.

Bugger me, a vision, I said to myself. Things are worse than I thought.

And with a last superhuman effort I broke surface and found myself once again knee deep in the benign and sultry waters that abut the Chedi’s private beach.

No one had any sympathy at all, but after that I steered clear of the sea again.

Rob, confusingly, now lives in Portugal. If he were fictional like Uncle Edgerton he would stay put but he isn’t and he doesn’t. Last week we stayed with him there – with him and his excellent terrier Joca, who kills snakes.

It was outrageously hot. The first day I accompanied Rob and the better half to the beach and got burnt in spite of Factor 50. They both discouraged me, as if I needed it, from swimming. The breakers came in from the Atlantic, they said and were big and cold.

For a couple of days when the others went to the beach I stayed behind with Joca, musing over some of the intractable problems of philosophy while he killed snakes. But on the last day I thought I’d try again. There were apparently compensations that the beach afforded above the intractable problems of philosophy. Portuguese woman are often sturdily built and dark-skinned. They lie on the beach, Rob and the better half reported, with gaily coloured string covering, more or less, their private parts – the latter accommodated as often as not in generous and well-oiled flesh. There were two in particular, I was told. They lie close together fingering each other’s gaily coloured string and laughing softly; we call them Bi and Large, Rob said.

Joca and I resolved to investigate this interesting phenomenon. As it happened, we never did. As soon as I got to the beach I got the feeling that Stuart Broad sometimes gets when presented with a row of Australian batsmen or Luke Skywalker when he turns off the machine. I would not fear the sun that burns or the wave that chokes. I would let the force be with me. I stripped to my togs.

Just going in, I said.

It was not cold. The waves broke about me in a manly way and in a manly way I faced them down. Suddenly the better half was at my side.

Do you need help at all? she said.

No thank you very much.

You can stand here, she said.

Yes, I said, I am.

A note came into her voice.

A wave, she shouted, pointing.

I gave her a look, infinitely loving but at the same time infinitely assured. I breasted the wave and swam some way towards Morocco.

A ghostly voice sounded in my ear.

Well done, my boy, said the Sultan.

Or at least I think that’s what he said: of course it was in Arabic.