I once went to Portugal. I took a Magic Bus from the old coach park by Gloucester Road tube station.
I once went to Portugal. I took a Magic Bus from the old coach park by Gloucester Road tube station. From this rough patch of mud, clapped-out coaches transported hairy youths to the four corners of Europe for thirty-odd quid return. I can't remember a lot about the journey, I was immersed in John Fowles's novel The Magus, and his evocation of the sun-drenched Aegean seemed realer than the motorway furniture. The book took about 24 hours to read. When I'd finished it, I looked up to see that the coach was struggling through a hilly, green, subtropical landscape of small fields and tumbledown farms. That night we arrived in Lisbon, where the whitewashed walls were pockmarked with bullet holes and daubed with political slogans from the coups and counter coups of the Seventies.
The following day, unable to find any Fowles novels in Lisbon, I decamped to the Algarve. Again arriving by night, I walked out of Faro along the beach; I had to escape the grim escarpment of tourist hotels. I walked and I walked and I walked. The moon rose up out of the Mediterranean and gilded the wine-dark waves, and still I walked on, determined to get far enough to experience true solitude, then at last, I lay down in the dunes and slept. In the morning I awoke to blazing sun and staggering over the dunes found myself on a dazzling green sward which was being drenched by a sprinkler system. A projectile whizzed past my sand-encrusted ear, which then registered a sharp "crack", followed by a bellicose Home Counties voice which roared, "Get off the fucking fairway you moron!"
But although I've managed to studiously avoid Portugal in the intervening 24 years, the former seafaring power has not been idle: having been forced out of Africa, in an astonishing manoeuvre, it's colonised the part of south London where I live. Actually, in fairness to the Portuguese, they were here in Lambeth before I arrived seven years ago, but nevertheless as the Nineties have given way to the Noughties, there's been a distinct inspissation of the Peninsular presence. The Portuguese cafés - which have names like Atoca and Estrella - that used to stud the shopping parades running up the Wandsworth and South Lambeth Roads, now form a near-unbroken strip of plate glass. They've even established a beachhead up the Stockwell Road. The eel and pie shop has gone under.
It's now possible - should you be minded to do such a thing - to eat tostas and bifanas all the way from Vauxhall to Brixton, while washing it down with sangria and Cintra beer. The cafés, many with attached restaurants, all feature wall-mounted televisions, speckled marble counters and are full to bursting with Portuguese. On an averagely grey London day, it's difficult to stroll past these posses of FC Porto supporters - cheering their team on while watching them live by satellite - without suspecting that they've imported a distinctly more relaxed lifestyle along with their cuisine.
I say suspect, because the Portuguese community is, to me, rather impenetrable. Whereas it's possible to strike up a conversation with the local Somalian qat dealer (despite the tennis ball of amphetamine privet he has shoved in his cheek), and the other communities in this quarter - British-Asian, Afro-Caribbean, chav, white bourgeoisie - rub along well enough, the Portuguese remain a case apart. The last week or so I've been determinedly quizzing the café staff to little effect. In La Luna, the café that's actually set in the bounds of our local park, there's a sign up which reads "The Permanence of Under 16s is Forbidden", and this represents an appreciably better grasp on English than that spoken by the waiters. To my enquiries about their origins and the duration of their time here, they replied with bemused has? and hahns?. And while not annoyed, my interlocutors had a way of looking at me (which seemed to say, "Why the hell are you bothering me?") that effectively cut short my investigation.
In Grelha D'Ouro I did confirm what I already knew, that the bulk of the local Portuguese come from around Porto in the north, although some Brazilians, Angolans and even Cap Verde Islanders have gravitated to the community. Some of my judgmental fellow bourgeois maintain that this explains their insularity: "They're basically peasants," these types opine, "that's why they come here and carry on with their close-mindedness." Not exactly being the world's greatest communitarian, I'm not in a position to judge the truth about this, but what I will say - at the risk of Trevor Phillips of Commission for Racial Equality coming down on me like a ton of London bricks - is that they are not the most comely people in the world.
Still, despite their failure to assimilate, and their bandy legs, I'm happy to be among them. I can get to Portugal now without even having to get on the 88 bus, let alone a magic one.
By Will Self
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