Monday, 31 October 2011

Portugal, my love and hate for it

I am at present in the city of Porto, as part of a mini-grand tour of the north of Portugal. Before this I had only passed through those regions glancingly, although I know Lisbon, the Algarve and parts of the Centre well. But this coming to know Portugal has not been a happy experience. I have long tended to share the slightly dismissive attitude about this country that is common in England and, although I am part of it by blood, and have felt deeply attached to it in childhood, I have latterly experienced so much unhappiness and negativity here that I long to leave Portugal for good.

But I have been startled this time by the beauty and interest of what I have seen, and today have enjoyed an almost rapturous tour of Porto in the company of a knowledgeable friend. At last I have realised that this is a beautiful country, not just one that I have to be interested in because my mother came from here. It is so full of sights which, if they were in Italy, would be packed with tourists, but here attract only a ghostly few.

As far as I always knew when I was young, my mother was entirely of Portuguese peasant origin, from near the town of Mafra north of Lisbon, the daughter of a man called Cesário dos Reis, who seems likely to have been her father because she was deeply fond of him, and of his wife, Marcelina de Jesus.

But for many years I was puzzled by the fact that, although my mother apparently spoke totally native Neapolitan Italian, her Portuguese seemed to be imperfect. She also appeared to know almost nothing about the region that she was ostensibly from and when I drove there once with her, she seemed totally lost. Since I have been living in Altura, the beach resort in the Algarve that was her last home, many people there have confirmed that her Portuguese was that of a foreigner. And a young Italian that I met in prison, from the region of Naples, once told me that he personally happened to know that my mother had been born in Italy and that I should believe this because it was true.

Last year I was staying with some cousins in the region near Mafra, and they mentioned to me for the first time a woman known only as Ana das Meias, or "Ana of the Stockings", because she spent her days walking around the countryside selling those and other items. She had lived in the farmhouse with Cesário dos Reis,  his wife and daughters, did no work there, and terrorised the household with a gun. She was uneducated, but  knew many languages. It was, however, difficult apparently to understand what she said in Portuguese.

Ana das Meias was also a smuggler and faith-healer (sometimes unkindly described as a witch). She had children by various men, to only one of whom she was married. She smoked. She was a thorough bad hat, and someone totally outside the norms of Portuguese society.

I commissioned a researcher to try and find out about her, but it was impossible to discover anything about her identity, because her name did not appear on the birth certificate of a daughter that she had had by another man in a thieves' warren in Lisbon. The reports of her various children and grandchildren by other men did not tally and it was impossible to determine the number of these descendants.

Ana das Meias sounds much more like the mother of my mother than the timid and deeply religious wife of Cesário dos Reis, for whom my mother had little feeling.

I hope to move from Portugal, if I can sell my house here, and live in Italy. The two countries have equally class-bound, oppressive and unjust social and legal systems, and equally fearsome bureaucracies, but in Italy they adjust themselves to their problems with a smile and in Portugal they endure them with a frown.

However, my mother, a deeply patriotic Portuguese, rarely mentioned Naples, had little feeling for Italy and showed no great familiarity with Italian custom. And because my deepest attachment was to her, I have slightly lukewarm feelings for the land where the lemon trees grow (they grow in Portugal as well).

Before I move to Italy, therefore - if I do - I feel I should find out for certain that Ana das Meias was my grandmother, that she originally came from Naples or somewhere near there, that the presence of her family in or near Naples was substantial and not just a fleeting connection, and that my mother was born in or grew up in or had some significant link with that beautiful but troubled city of the south.

Because I believe that it is only if you are connected with a country by blood that you will ever be happy living there, or even that it is only in that case that you really have the right to live there. For blood is thicker than water, and the relationship between a people and a land is among the most important of all relationships. And it does not make you a Hitler or a Goebbels to believe these things.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Almost on the eve of my television programme

The cursor is madly shaking as I write this, and my hatred of the world of modern computers is almost uncontrollable, and the Chinese woman at the screen near me in the Salerno Mailboxes seems to be going mad as well, but I have to go on writing my wretched blog because the television programme about me and my mother is soon to be shown:  on Crime and Investigation Network, at 9p.m. next Tuesday, 13th September 2011.

Oddly enough, that date is the ninth anniversary of my mother's death, which seems appropriate, because this programme, which is called "The Last Will of Maria Hills", is about her almost as much as it is about me. How strange that, after so many postponements, they have fixed it for her death day.

And it may be my death day as well if I have to stay much longer in this modern hell of an internet and phone agency. The Chinese woman is alternately shouting and crying to someone over her headphones, someone has just sat down unpleasantly close to me, a vast multiracial crowd was only recently at the counter waiting hopelessly to be served. Italy is a beautiful country, but in its modern incarnation it is among the most crowded and pressurised of European states.

Nevertheless, it can be so beautiful. This morning I went to Paestum where the three Greek temples rise from the ruins of the ancient city. Once you pass through the sunny walls you are in a different world, and the calm and serenity are unbelievable.

Most moving of all are the ancient paintings from the Tomb of the Diver, which are unique Greek pictorial art of the fifth century BC. One shows young men making love to each other at a symposium and another them following a flute girl, but the most significant of all is of the diver himself aiming for the pool of death. We cannot doubt as we look at this wonderful work of art that he will come up to the surface with a fuller understanding of things and a new life in union with the infinite.

But before I myself aim for the pool of death, I am going to be a television star. It is with great hope and only a little fear that I contemplate seeing and hearing myself on the screen. Millions of others will also be able to watch in HD and perhaps they will see every chance stain on the colourful shirt and smart trousers I acquired in Otranto on the day of the filming to face the camera. What will they think of me? More important, will it encourage them to want to read the things I write, which are the most important things in my life to me?

As previous readers of this blog will know, my little book, "The Olinda Angel", extracts from which are read by my friend Bill Hicks on the programme, is available as a download from lulu.com at the cheap price of £4.95. A few blog posts back, there is a blob you can press to go straight to the site.

This unfinished book is a bit of a mess, but it is interesting as a rare record of murderous obsession. Most other of my writings are more pulled together artistically. I have written two novels, one realistic and the other an allegory, as well as a very strange novella, called "The Track". All are pretty good, I think, and all unpublished.

But I am probably best in my autobiographical shorter pieces, a proportion of which have seen the light of day, and I believe I write particularly well at around 1000 words. However, one of the short stories that I published in Quadrant, called "To the Edge of Her World", an  work of about 8000 words and with no direct autobiographical reference, was described by Les Murray, the magazine's literary editor, as "a chilling masterpiece".

That ends my short plug about my work, and I hope you will forgive it. And if watching the programme stimulates you to explore what I have published as C.A.R. Hills, or to accept further works for publication, it will have more than fulfilled the hopes I repose in it.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Half Way Through My Latest Grand Tour

Well, here I am in beautiful Amsterdam, and the crowds in the ancient alleys are munching their chips to the fragrant smell of pot, and nobody cares much about anything, and the hoteliers at least are making a fortune.
The news from London is of more riots, eerily echoing those of thirty years ago that I remember from my youth. That is the difference between the two cities. The Dutch capital is very similar to London in being a highly interesting and historic rip-off. But all they do here is smoke weed. Tension and threat are almost entirely absent. Whether this has anything to do with Amsterdam being quite a lot less extravagantly multiracial than London it would of course be unacceptable to say.

This is the third of my grand tours of the Schengen area, and while it was beautiful at first to make for Italy, and know that prosaic Ventimiglia was only the first of the wonderful places that lay ahead, now I am becoming a little tired of the new places succeeding each other in my tired mind and faltering memory. Sometimes, in Italy or France, Germany or Spain, I arrive at one city in the evening and have the curious sensation that I have arrived back at the one I left in the morning.

Amsterdam in its totality appeals to me less than Berlin, where I was before. The sense of emptiness and half-forgotten tragedy that clings to that place, mingled with the pleasantness of all the eager young people flooding down the otherwise ghostly streets on their skateboards, did something to move my cold heart.

Nevertheless, I mustn't criticise Amsterdam too much. My ferociously expensive hotel doesn't offer a washing service, but the breakfast is OK when you finally get to the coffee machine, and, really, the free Internet service is a delight which has finally made me overcome my laziness and add a sixth post to my blog.

And I took my washing to a predictably hugely overcrowded launderette, but I could escape it very quickly because the generous man in the turban wrote down my washing as fit for one machine and therefore it only cost eight Euros. I am writing this blog during the hour I have to wait for the washing to be returned.

No doubt it will be a complete mess, like everything else here, but at that price you really can't complain. Back in bankrupt Portugal the local laundry does my washing beautifully but weighs it with precision and charges me more than double this. And no smiles either. In this predicament I'd rather be in Amsterdam.

After Amsterdam I'm moving on to Zurich, because I have a perverse wish to experience German-speaking Switzerland, and hope that a belligerent local will artistically beat the shit out of me. But the hotel prices are likely to be even more terrifying, so I'll only stay three days, I think, before escaping towards Italy. So on to even more pricey Rome and criminal Naples before a further quick and snooty tour of Spain and landing back in Portugal and my own dilapidated house one autumn morning with what will probably be a huge sigh of relief.

Still, I can now say that I know Europe, and only wish I had known it in the days when there was something to know. But I am reading the first volume of Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy in the evenings in the restaurants, which iscouched in far more beautiful writing than anything that would or could be produced now, but depicts a Europe of such casual brutality, inequality and horror at the opening of the war that it makes my complaints about the modern world of laziness, mild corruption  and comfort look silly.

Let us pray that the wheel of fortune does not turn too soon and bring us back to a human situation where such things are practised as Olivia Manning knew. It could happen overnight, at the onset of some catastrophe. What goodwill exists in Europe or elsewhere would not stop it for one moment.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Increasing happiness in the Algarve

In order to continue my blog, I must reveal what I've been being coy about, my exact whereabouts. I live in a place called Altura, which is a featureless modern beach resort near Portugal's southern border with Spain. I've  known the place for almost thirty years without ever once liking it or the people here..

It was the resort in which my mother chose to build her last home, for reasons unknown to me.  For her ostensible place of origin was far away, in a rural region between Mafra and Ericeira, and her sisters lived in Lisbon. She explained it by saying she wanted to remain in touch with English tourists by letting out the upstairs flat in her house to them. But why this particular place rather than any other in the Algarve?

I have no idea. Anyway, I managed to win back her large and ugly house from the man she had left it to, seven years after her death, in 2009. In the interim I had tried to have him murdered, served a prison sentence and then skipped my licence.

I recently spoke on the phone to my cousin Brian in England, and he told me what he'd never made clear before, that the British police  never issued the international arrest warrant that they threatened. It seems I was too small a criminal to be worth their while. What good sense on their part!

Whether I can thus truly be described as being "on the run" is a moot question. If I tried to re-enter England, I would possibly be arrested, but they are very unlikely to seek me in Portugal. Perhaps I'm On The Walk, or even, On the Totter.

Meanwhile, and rather surprisingly, I can report that I am increasingly happy in Altura, with its million barking dogs in the otherwise ghostly streets. My house is the usual misshapen white Algarvian box with red roof tiles and decorative chimney, but I keep it cool inside by never opening the shutters, and I love to sit naked at the stone table in the back garden writing my private diary, looking at the peach and rose and jacaranda and lemon trees, and sipping at a Spanish apple liqueur.

I'm also gradually becoming more part of the local community, in so far as this is possible. I now have various clients for small doles of one or two Euros: an alcoholic old woman, and a somewhat younger ex-druggy who is now more an alcoholic. The latter is an amusing character whom I like more than the rapacious oldie.

I repair to the Central Sports Café morning, afternoon and evening to check my emails, revise my blog and surf the Internet. The morning also sees me at the paper-shop to peruse the international press, and occasionally to buy something, to justify my  browsing. In the early afternoon I often sleep, but when I finally feel like milky coffee and cake, it's quite smart to take these at the Broadway establishment.

Then, if I've got the energy, it's a quick visit to the supermarket. But sometimes I don't go there, because I must take the long way around to avoid the old woman, who sits at Snack-Bar Piri-Piri, just off the main street.

Finally, it's back home, totally exhausted, to lie on my bed for a while. Then I take a delicious bath with the CD playing. Then perhaps a snifter. Or I might have had one before the bath, in the bird-haunted evening garden.

Then out again for a meal at an overpriced restaurant, where I keep the price strictly under twenty Euros, And, energy returning, perhaps it's a phone call to England from the ocean phone-box, a bar to go on with the novel I'm reading, and then back to my  house for a final drink and record and the longed-for tumble into bed.

Despite these supine ecstasies, I'm planning my third grand tour of Europe, commencing shortly. As I walked out one midsummer morning....

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Home Thoughts from Abroad

I just went down to the windy beach and phoned my friend Stephen in England, and he told me that, although he himself had not seen my blog, another mutual acquaintance of ours had read it and found it funny. This has encouraged me to write a new post. I only have one follower who actually leaves comments, and she hasn't been in touch recently, but I now realise that perhaps a reasonable number of people are reading my blog and for one reason or another do not leave a comment. So this is for them.

I hear that the weather in England is marvellous. It is strange how these sudden intensely warm spells seem to hit England in April, or sometimes even in March, again and again. The poet Browning was on to something when he wrote. "Oh, to be in England/ Now that April's there." Do I long to be in my native land now?

In the place where I am we, as it happens, are in an uncharacteristically wet and windy spell. This is a seaside resort, and in this weather it unpleasantly resembles a small place south of the Humber. I pass whole days here when I talk to no one except those engaged in the formal business of serving me with coffee or meals, newspapers or telephone cards.

In Central Sports Cafe they are too busy with the endless passing of drugs to say thank you, but if you can pay for it, human contact is always available in this unfriendly place, and the interchange with a witty newsagent is often as satisfying and certainly more trouble-free than if  a random person had offered conversation without charge.

Life in the Algarve reminds me of when I was in prison. There too all contact was behind a pay-wall. The discipline and rehabilitation workers viewed you functionally, and  they spoke to you for only so long as they judged it necessary to attain their ends. And the prisoners only communicated because they wanted to get a laugh or a sachet of Horlicks, or hoped you might pass sugar under their doors.

Whether your interlocutor hopes to make as much as possible from you, whether he or she earnestly seeks your reform, or is desperate for sugar, the effect is more or less the same. I think of my fellow prisoners these days with more affection than the beady-eyed social workers or the  Algarvian newspaper-sellers. But that may be only because those butch men in prison were often quite sexy.

And now I am in Central Sports again, and the piratical guy with the greasy ringlets who runs the place is approaching in a threatening manner, and my credit is approaching its end, so I will post my blog now and hope that Max reads this one and finds it amusing.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Biding My Time

I had a bit of bad news late last week. It seems the television programme about me, which I was expecting to happen soon, has been postponed until the autumn, with no date for it to be shown. Sky apparently needs more time to think about publicising the Battle of Wills series, so I suppose that means the programme might have a bigger impact when it finally comes. But this is the third time they have postponed, and I am beginning to get tired of always living in anticipation.

Meanwhile, as if fate were offering me a small consolation prize - I always remember that saying of Maria von Trapp, "When God closes a door, he opens a window" - I have been journalised by a gentleman called Len Port, who stood me a nice alcoholic lunch. He is about to publish an article about me on his blog, and from there hopes to sell the story to various papers, for one of which, at least, The Daily Mail, he is a stringer.

Anyway, he is apparently a senior and respected journalist. I suppose it is unconventional for a criminal on the run to be giving his story to all and sundry, but my chief interest is in becoming known as a writer, and for that publicity, nowadays, is essential. I take myself less seriously as a criminal, and only hope the police share the same attitude. They are very short of money now, I am told, so they can only afford to go after the Mr Bigs. I am a Mr Small.

So I sit here in the internet cafe of this dull but noisy corner of southern Europe, blogging into the blue, checking lulu.com to see if anyone has ordered "The Olinda Angel" (no one yet has), checking the blog itself for any comments (there are none).

My feet are hurting terribly, and I am told I may have gout. Well, I can try anti-inflammatory tablets. They may do good, and cannot cause harm. One must not complain, or repine, and one is safe in the arms of God. Whether I write a blog or no blog, he is leading us thankfully to the land where no blogs are. Or might there be a Great Blogger in the Sky?

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

How to find "The Olinda Angel"

Well, I haven't had any comments yet on my blog, and I must confess I am a bit disappointed. For that reason perhaps I haven't added to it since beginning the unfortunate thing in January. But friends tell me that one must not be disheartened but just go on blogging, and that is what I am doing now.

I think the television programme on Sky's Crime and Investigation Network must be very soon now, although I have had no definite news. But I have got round to publishing the small book from which extracts will be read, called "The Olinda Angel". As you know, I am charging the small sum of  Four Pounds Ninety-Five and hope this will not break any banks. The work is available as an ebook to be downloaded and has 63 pages. It is pretty delirious, unfinished stuff, and artistically rather imperfect, but I hope you will like it.

The book is on lulu.com, and one way of accessing it is to go straight to their site, and search for The Olinda Angel. Or you can click on the following blob:
Support independent publishing: Buy this e-book on Lulu.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

C.A.R. Hills (Charles Hills), Author

When I began to grow old, my life took on a strange pattern. Rather than moving towards peace and stability, I began to think about murder. I couldn't help it. I had always thought of myself as a peaceful person, but violence became the sole longing of my thoughts. Madness - or at least huge disturbance - followed, then a suicide attempt, then two and a half years in prison after a guilty plea at the Old Bailey.

I had not wanted any of this. I didn't plan it. I would never have believed it possible. I still think similar things could have happened to almost anyone if they had been faced with an equally horrible situation. Perhaps all criminals say that. Perhaps Dr Crippen would have said it, or Christie, or Myra Hindley. I didn't commit my murder, though. If I had, I would not be here to write this blog.

During the period of my obsession I was trying to write a book about what I was going through. I didn't want it to be just the record of my own terrible thoughts, so I wrote it in a variety of voices, including that of the person I was hoping to kill. Chapters in my voice and his alternated, and I also wrote pieces in the voice of a hitman I tried to hire, of one of my aunts, of a man who birched me by arrangement, and of my best friend.

Then I had 12 chapters, which seemed like a perfect number. So I began writing what I planned as a long central chapter investigating the philosophy of murder. By this time I was negotiating with more possible hitmen, who were in fact undercover police. Day by lonely day, usually first thing in the morning, I would add a paragraph of painful thoughts.

Two or three days after I had written the final paragraph of the book as it now stands, and about a week before Christmas 2006, my door was kicked down early one morning and a posse of policemen broke into the room where I was naked in bed. I admitted my guilt to them, they arrested me, and before they took me away I pointed out the manuscript of the book as evidence that might be useful to them.

It was in fact quoted in court by the prosecuting counsel. But he had no idea it was a book. The opening sentence of it was just useful to him in proving my guilt, and he thought the title of that first chapter was the title of the whole work. In this and other ways, I felt thoroughly misunderstood by the British legal system, and this increased my resentment against England much more than the actual penalty, originally seven years. That, harsh as it was, I half desired.

During the later part of the time I was in prison, things became so dreadful for me that I decided I would leave England when I was released. I felt deep anger that I had been allowed to get into a position at HMP Lowdham Grange where I was in fear of my life. Just before Christmas 2008 my estrangement from the four men who had been my chief friends became definitive. It seemed to me imperative that I leave all four, although I kept a mental reservation about the one called Bill Hicks.

In going abroad, I would of course be breaking the conditions of my licence. It might perhaps never be possible to return, unless I gave myself up when my money ran out. I didn't care. I told no one of my plans, and definitely not the four friends, one of whom I had already broken with before leaving prison.

In the four months after my release from HMP Belmarsh, on 19th June 2009, I concentrated on seeing as much of the beauty of my own country as I could, on being as pleasant as possible to anyone I managed to meet, and on deceiving the three remaining friends.

Only one person suspected my plan. On the Monday evening before I fled the country, I invited Bill Hicks to my flat with a playwright and aspirant film-maker called Alecky Blythe who wanted to produce a drama about me. They were standing in my sitting-room, and I was in the hall facing them, and Alecky said, "Bill, he's planning something." She, the blonde, attractve, ambitious, untalented woman, seemingly successful, but not knowing that she faced the imminent decline of her career, had seen it in my eyes. Shrewd Bill, that unassuming and discreet man, the perfect spy, saw nothing.

But before that encounter, during the four months, I had really used my time well. My social life was OK, although in the evenings I was generally alone. But what wonderful trips I made! I went to Haworth in Yorkshire to see the home of the Brontes. I took the train to Birmingham, and greatly enjoyed touring the renovated city. I visited Edinburgh, with its historic beauty and fearful charm. On the Sunday two weeks before I left, I went for a long walk beyond Rickmansworth, to the land of the three rivers, the Colne, the Chess and the Gade. And for a minute in that land, on a bare hill, I was as alone as I might have been in the Middle Ages.

The following weekend, the last before I left, I stayed in deepest and quite rural Herefordshire, and after a long and ecstatic Sunday afternoon hike through beautiful country to Much Markle met a most lovely boy called Joe who worked in a country pub and drove me back to Ledbury, where I was staying. Oh, to be with him rather than my friends and acquaintances!

The timing for that trip was far from ideal, because I had to meet my friend Mark Casserley for our weekly Saturday lunch at a restaurant near Clapham Junction, so had to leave in a huge hurry that afternoon, and then delay my return home until the middle of the day on Monday. In order to get enough time in Herefordshire. But I wouldn't have missed the farewell lunch with this ambiguous person. As I left him I said how much I was looking forward to seeing him the following Saturday. He never told me his own thoughts, so he could not read mine. There was deep joy in deceiving him, more than with the others.

And two days before I left, on the Wednesday, I made a long day's excursion through eastern England, all around the Fens, and went beyond the limit of my railway ticket, and was terribly frightened as I sat on the train that I would be caught. But the inspector only came round when we had passed beyond the station on the return journey where the ticket became valid. And, in the evening, I played host to my friend Stephen Cviic, and this once very handsome man watched a film on television and I went to sleep on the sofa in sheer exhaustion. He showed annoyance with me when I woke up. Was he that boring to me now? I only smiled lazily.

And on the Friday, the appointed morning, Friday, 16th October, 2009, I got up very early, played five of my favourite records, leafed through the thirteenth or thirteen secondhand books relating to Jesus that I had bought at a church bookshop some weeks before, and said farewell for ever to my flat of thirty years. I closed the door in a mood of cheerful abandon, and walked to Wandsworth Road Station. I took three trains, the first to Peckham Rye, the second to Bromley South, the third to Dover. The afternoon was sunny as I walked with backpack and bags, wearing my smart suit, towards Dover Eastern Docks.

Since then I have seen many places in Europe, because the restlessness engendered by my years of misery has not left me and I cannot bear to stay long in Portugal, the country where my troubles began. The places I have visited were almost all in the Schengen Area, because in those countries you do not have to show your passport on crossing a frontier. Friends and family members, prompted by the police, have urged me to come back, and I have tried to explain, as gently as I can, that there is only a limited amount to which I could return - some places, a few friends, a lot of acquaintances.

Once I phoned Bill Hicks one aftrnoon from a small shop with a telephone in Bari in southern Italy. I was on my way to the Spiaggia Pane e Pomodoro (Bread and Tomato Beach), but had stopped by the phone because I longed to get some news. And Bill told me that a television company wanted to make a programme about me, or more precisely, about my crime. Two or three weeks later, a pleasant and talented young film maker, called Will Rowson, came out to film me, in Otranto, a bit further south from Bari, which was the next stop on my peregrinations. I loved the intense day I spent with Will. Posing to camera pleases me more than talking to people.

The programme is to be shown in England, this March or April, on Sky´s Crime and Investigation Channel, as part of a series about testamentary battles called Battle of Wills. The programme includes two extracts from the book I was writing, which was used by the police to question me and then quoted at the Old Bailey.  Because I didn't have the manuscript with me in Italy, these extracts are read by Bill Hicks, the best friend whose portrait I painted in one of the chapters. I had left all my manuscripts with him.

The book is called The Olinda Angel. Olinda is a place in Brazil, and I saw a picture of an angel in my hotel  when I stayed there in November 2002. It seemed like an emblem of the ambiguous mesh of feelings that entrapped me when I contemplated murder. The long unfinished chapter about killing begins with my telling about the angel.

I could never return to the feelings,  the angel, or the book. But I hope it might interest you to read the fragment I succeeded in writing. I am running short of money on my travels, so also hope you will not mind paying £4.95. I will include details of how to buy the book as I continue with writing this blog, to which I welcome any reactions, as to the television programme.

Even if my book has no literary merit, it will tell you about a state of mind that I hope you never experience.