A Progressive Rake

Funnies, rants, and quite a lot of gin

The most fun you can have by yourself

My voice broke ridiculously early. I was about ten, and still in primary school, when gravity took a quick look at my thorax and certain related items, and decided she wanted a bit of them. There was no squeaky period, no teenage yodelling. I simply went to bed one night with a high, clear child’s voice, and woke up the next morning growling like a hungover badger, and with my bollocks banging around my knees. I can only presume that it is as a reaction against this precocious physical development that I have steadfastly refused to undergo any kind of emotional maturation whatsoever. Consequentially, as well as a love of smut, a total inability to defer pleasure, and the use of manipulative egocentrism as my basic interpersonal operational principle, I have never lost the childhood fascination—nay, celebration—of the various icks and oozes that evolution has bestowed upon our bodies. True, I accompany this now with an appreciative scientific wonder at the incredible sophistication of our bodies’ ability to respond to the external world: the amazing complexity of our immune system is little short of a miracle. But this is supplementary to, and a weak justification for, the basic love of the goo it creates.

However a line has to be drawn, and I draw it at earwax. There is nothing to celebrate in earwax. It is manifestly gross, it serves no exciting anti-pathogenic function, and is all-in-all a bit embarrassing. Doubtless you agree with me on this matter and this is regrettable, because we’re going to be talking about it now.

You see, my ears—possibly, though mistakenly, wishing to facilitate me in my joy at gross corporeality—produce the stuff on an industrial scale and, for reasons I cannot fathom, do so especially when I am in Brazil. So it was that, barely a week into getting here, I went through the now quite familiar process of increasingly muffled hearing until that final day when the blockage was complete, and I descended into a world of mute and subdued sound, accompanied by a discomforting sense of pressure, and a background of white noise as the blood rushing through the ears suddenly became audible.

This is genuinely a problem. With both ears gone more-or-less simultaneously I was really quite deafened. As the effect is not just one of reduced range of perception but of extremely reduced clarity in what is perceived, this becomes a real issue when one is operating in a second language, and renders detailed sociophonetic observation virtually impossible. The solution is, ultimately, to go to a doctor and get the damn things flushed out. In the UK nowadays the treatment is largely performed using a weird and noisy suction device, which is not a particularly pleasant experience; and this is a great tragedy because the old-fashioned method, which consists of a large syringe, plenty of warm water, and a kidney dish held under the ear is, well, extraordinary.

The last time a blockage occurred when I was in Brazil was a few years ago, when I was staying with a family the patriarch of whom—a magnificently eccentric octogenarian who slept under a portrait of Lenin, and who maintained a blog which consisted solely of dodgy renderings into Portuguese of the many propagandist tracts imported from the Soviet Union that adorned his shelves and which he had painstakingly and uncomprehendingly keyed into Google Translate—had been a medic, and his former protégé treated the family for free and without waiting. So, one day, we all tramped down there together for a joint queue-jump. The daughter of the redoubtable Blasco needed a repeat prescription of whatever medication she took to keep her furiously irritable and wildly irrational, her teenage son needed his surliness supplements, and I needed my ears cleaning. The husband did not come. He largely self-medicated with vodka.

So it was that, in front of two members of my household, as well as an attendant nurse, the white-coated medic rolled up his sleeves and whooshed water through my ears until the blockage was released. In previous centuries, surgery used to be performed in quite literally a theatre, where curious onlookers could watch as the local barber took his razor blade to an unfortunate individual, and I felt something of the ghost of this early medicine hanging over me as, on the release of each chunk of aural sludge, Blasco’s protégé passed sround the tray for the mixed admiration and disgust of the onlookers. But—as we shall come to—it was worth the humiliation.

This time round, however, matters were more problematic, because I have no amiable pet doctor to hand, and the Brazilian healthcare system is highly bureaucratic and expensive. So yesterday, having finally had enough of my deafness, but not wishing to spend hours waiting to sign forms and write large cheques, I decided to do the only sensible thing and take matters into my own hands. I went to a chemist and bought a decent-sized syringe and then spent a good fifteen minutes bent over the sink in the hotel room squirting warm water into my ears and, after a great deal of attempts, finally managed to liberate the right ear from the oppressive hold of its unwelcome and gooey squatter.

Oh! Oh, there is no poetry, no music, no sublime art that I can draw upon to describe that moment, that ecstatic, vibrant, long-awaited juncture when something shifts, the pent-up pressure releases, and a sudden rush of aural clarity fills the thudding, dull silence. No art can mirror it, and there is but one word in the vocabulary of this nuanced and rich language of ours that I can find to describe it. Ladies and gentlemen, I had me an eargasm.

The left ear, it is true, remains stubbornly blocked; and I have decided to leave it for a few days before attempting again, as one does not wish to over-aggravate the delicate internal mechanisms of our auditory systems. But, even so . . . shhhh . . . listen! I can hear again. There: the roar of traffic on Rua da Consolação! . . . There: the clicking of my laptop keyboard as I type this . . . and . . . shhh, now . . . be still for a moment and wait. Yes! . . . There! . . . I can even hear, from half a globe away, you quietly tutting as you read this and wonder how a man with such expressive talents as I could put them so egregiously to waste, writing a thousand words about grossness and gunk and goo.

Good British fun

It’s been a wet weekend in São Paulo, and as I don’t really know anyone here, and the much-needed rain has been a decided discouragement to exploration, I’ve been largely at a loose end, just going to the gym, moseying around shopping centres, and chowing down on awesome mineiro food. Not a great many opportunities for fun.

I was delighted, therefore, to find that the United Kingdom Independence Party has offered its members the chance to not only have fun, but even win prizes, by rating how much they hate—sorry, “feel close to”—different social groups. Groups like “Eastern Europeans,” “Blacks,” “Muslims,” “Asians.” Give ’em a score from 0 to 10! What fun! What good, British, fun.

Alas, the survey has either been taken down or is in a members-only part of the site, so I could not fill it in. But even with the few examples from the screen shots, it turned out to be a perplexing rather than a fun task. For some reason—some hideous, progressive, rational reason—I found myself totally incapable of asserting how close I felt to such large and heterogenous groups.

So, simple-minded man that I am, I decided to have a go at version of my own, using individuals. I know, I know. Such a failure of abstractive ability. I decided to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, how utterly, irredeemably, loathsomely vile I found the following detrita of humanity:

Turns out they all got a 10. But then I had to go and allow an 11 for the man who defends, in part or whole, all these people; who aligns his party with a Holocaust-denier so far-right that the French National Front will not associate with him; who happily co-chairs an EU Parliament group with a man who thinks that Anders Breivik has “ideas … in defence of western civilisation”; who feels awkward when he cannot hear English being spoken in a train carriage; who selects the war-mongering autocrat Vladimir Putin as the statesman he most admires; who would ban migrants with HIV from entering the UK; who thinks that his party only “possibly” should not accept funds from a man who denies the existence of marital rape; who sought the endorsement of Enoch Powell, and twice asked him to stand for his party; whose election materials slam funding of Eurocrats but boasts of having received £2m in expenses, expenses which repeatedly look like they have been fiddled; who thinks breast-feeding mothers should sit in corners and not be “ostentatious”; who poses as a man of the people yet considers his £79,000 salary (before expenses, fiddled or otherwise) makes him “poor”; and who is “proud” that former BNP voters now vote for him.

I think I must have got something wrong though. I didn’t, in the end, find this exercise in hatred any fun at all. I just found it terribly, terribly, terribly depressing.

Correction, Mr Osborne

“What I reject is the totally hyperbolic BBC coverage on spending cuts. I had all that when I was interviewed four years ago and has the world fallen in? No it has not.” (Guardian, 4 December)

No, Mr Osborne, your world—the world of a multi-millionaire Bullingdon Club inheritee—has not fallen in. The one million people who rely on food banks to survive might, perhaps, disagree with you.

Unleashing the Inner Neanderthal

I never entered a gym until I was in my late twenties. In my teenage years running around a pitch pretending to catch a ball, but actually just hitting people and being hit, sufficed to keep me in reasonable shape. At university for my undergrad I maintained my rugby-level boozing, supplemented it with poor diet, and omitted to find a replacement exercise regime, resulting in a physique which could most attractively be described as “Regency.” Starting in my final year and into my early twenties, it all fell off rapidly because of lack of money with which to booze, a job which required me to be on my feet all day, and those goddamn hormones that young people have. (You wait, oh my twenty-something readers. You just wait. You will hit thirty and that effortlessly firm and lean physique will suddenly require twice as much work just to stay the same.)

As my twenties progressed, the chub returned to a degree, due to working in publishing: an industrial machine whose human gears are oiled by the frequent and excessive application of alcohol. An attempt to address this by the enthusiastic though utterly incompetent playing of squash resulted, late in my twenties, in a herniated disc in my spine, three months off work, and the general pain that comes with this most unattractive of middle-age’s precursors.

Once I had slowly edged my way back to mobility, I resolved never to let this happen again, and to that end joined a gym. This, despite my firm conviction that gymnasia were horrendous sweat-pits of hypertrophied masculinity, and that picking up heavy things just to put them down again was an existential epic fail, and probably a grotesquely unnecessary messing with entropy to boot. To my immense surprise I found that gyms are really rather ordinary places, that entropy can look after itself, and I additionally realized that nothing else I do in my entire life will have any cosmic consequence at all, so my inevitably, ultimately wasted years might as well be spent inevitably, ultimately-wastedly buff. This was enhanced by the discovery, led on by an exceptionally awesome trainer in Oxford, that I particularly liked picking up stupidly heavy things. I found my Inner Neanderthal, and I embraced him.

A few years of not unreasonable almost-buffness ensued, but of late the chub has returned again. The distance, it is true, from my house in Bath to the nearest gym was not conducive to fitting in a quick session. But I also have been worrying that I have lost the enthusiasm. I had of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my thirst, foregone all custom of exercises. Could it be that I am, horrifyingly, just past it?

So why am I relating this now? Well, after a couple of days in Picinguaba—a village in Brazil with no gym, but substantial quantities of beer—I realized today that the situation was hardly going to improve. So, as my friend Peter was driving into Paraty—the nearest decent-sized town—today, I hopped in the car to go to the gym there.

I used to live in Paraty, sporadically, some years ago, and was a member of a gym there, so I went back to Corpo em forma—where I was pleasantly surprised to discover they remembered me—paid the day-rate, and went in to try and ameliorate the belly situation. Let me describe this place to you. It is cheap. It is on the upper storey of an L-shaped shopping precinct, the front of which is open-air except for a lightweight awning to keep off the direct sun. The inside of the gym has fans, but they are never on. The mats on the floor are so elderly and abused that one suspects that what little cushioning they have is less retained from an earlier, more bouyant, phase of their existance than it is simply the accumulated absorbed sweat that has dripped down on them. The weights are shameless lumps of iron with occasionally visible numbers on them, and there are no clips with which to hold them in place on the bars: if you can’t maintain them stable, they will fall off and you will look a fool. The guys who work there are Brazilians, and therefore were born buff even before they started putting decidedly suspicious compounds in their bodies, and wouldn’t conjugate their verbs even if they knew how. It is a horrendous sweat-pit of hypertrophied masculinity and, secretly, shame-facedly, I love it. I rediscovered my Inner Neanderthal today, and tomorrow is really gonna hurt.

There is a coda to this story, and one which will justify and even form a kind of absolution for my confession of secret ferrophilia. I did no CV in the gym, because (a) it was 30 degrees in the shade, and (b) I just hate it so much. Instead, after I’d finished, I went to the rodoviária to get the bus back to Picinguaba.

I now need to supply you with a little geography. Picinguaba lies halfway between the towns of Paraty and Ubatuba; the former is in the state of Rio de Janeiro, and the latter the state of São Paulo. Picinguaba is about five miles into the São Paulo side so, because local buses operate upon a state-level system, you have to get two buses to get back to Picinguaba: one from Paraty to the divisão, and one from the divisão to Picinguaba. Additionally, Picinguaba is not actually on the main road between Paraty and Ubatuba, but down a long, badly-kept, and extremely hilly road. There is a bus-stop at the junction. Some of the buses to Ubatuba from the divisão take a detour down into Picinguaba, others do not. It’s not an extremely long road, but it is about a twenty minute detour for the bus, because the road is only just wide enough, pot-holed, and so steep in places that it is not unknown for the bus to actually roll over as it attempts to make a particularly vertiginous turn.

There was a bus waiting at the divisão, and so I asked a guy also waiting whether this one went into Picinguaba. No, he replied, it did not. I thought about it, and decided to get it anyway, as I could always get out at the junction stop and either wait for a bus coming the other way, or start walking into Picinguaba and flag down a lift from anyone passing.

So we arrived at the junction, I rang the bell, and disembarked. The bus pulled away and immediately swung around, went back up the road for twenty metres, and took the turning into Picinguaba.

Do you know that feeling when you drop a freshly-poured gin and tonic, quite possibly due to it being far from the first freshly-poured gin and tonic that has passed your way already? How it descends in slow-motion to shatter upon the floor, and how unreasonable it seems that you can’t simply unwind time just a few seconds to undo what was obviously a minor, uncosmic error. That. Off it merrily, but slow-motionally went, down the road that led to Picinguaba, leaving me on a sun-struck, boiling highway with no-one else at the stop, and no indication of when the next bus would be.

Reader, I walked it. Someone would come. Someone would pass me. My face is known in Picinguaba, people are generous and friendly, and it is a given that if you are going down the road and they have space in their car they will pick you up.

No-one came.

No-one picked me up.

I walked all four fucking miles of it, in the afternoon heat, already exhausted from my over-enthusiastic gymming. Up steep hills, on an uneven road, passing en route the ditch with broken trees where, Peter had coincidentally pointed out to me on the way out, the latest bus-overturning had taken place. I did my CV after all.

Of course the bus was ahead of me, and had to return, and I passed the bus coming down the steepest stretch as I was coming up it. (Hoffnung, anyone?) The guy who had told me it did not enter Picinguaba was still on it, of course, and sat on the side facing me. The bus was moving slowly, for it had pot-holes and inclines to negotiate, so I had time to look him full in the face.

Brazilian men largely operate on a combination of testosterone, boundless optimism, and a total, utter, bloody-minded refusal to admit that they are ever wrong. I have been coming to this country for about ten years now, and I have finally seen an expression on someone’s face that I never thought I would.


Oh, and some news

The preceding rant was written whilst waiting to go to the airport, for I am finally on my way back to Brazil—a country where many, many people fail to agree their noun and verb phrases, yet somehow manage to live full, happy, and communicatively competent lives—after a far-too-long lacuna caused by my bleeding retinas and associated problems. As interesting things happen there, you may actually find that this blog starts being updated on a rather more regular basis.


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