Friday, 2 November 2012

Sous les toits de Paris

My latest round of travel has brought me to Paris, and it being a cold, wet afternoon and All Souls Day, I decided not to view the Impressionists at the Musée d'Orsay but to see the Memorial of the Shoah.

During the years that I have been wandering around Europe, I have visited many Jewish museums, but this is among the most darkly impressive. It is mainly housed in a stark modern building over the site of a former barracks which became a deportation centre during the Second World War. At a deep underground level, there is a permanent exhibition of great thoroughness, but above it is a huge dark hall which is down some steps, almost empty, and you see there sparse candles illuminating Hebrew words. There seems to be a tacit agreement that this area should not be entered. I decided to remain at the top of the steps and pray there.

Whether or not I am myself a Jew I do not know according to any material evidence. My mother, from whom my Jewishness, if it exists, must derive, only ever referred to the possibility in the most ambiguous terms. My ostensible ancestry, recorded on paper, does not support the idea. I was not brought up according to any Jewish custom. I am not circumcised. I am a Christian and a homosexual and a somewhat frivolous, irresponsible person whose most strongly held value is indifference. Part of me wants to stand back from this identity, which could only ever be proved with the utmost difficulty and might bring me harm. But another part wants to know the truth, and cleave to my own people, if such they are, as I believe.

There was a date when my doubts about the origin of both my parents began to crystallise. It was a few days before the Christmas of 2002, my mother had been dead for about three months, and I was visiting an old friend of hers, whom I had not seen since childhood, in her dark flat in the centre of Lisbon. And I well remember sitting in this old woman's best back room, and feeling both close to her and strangely distant, and her suddenly saying, without any preparation, "Oh, you did know that your father's father was from Poland, didn't you?"

"No... I never knew anything at all about that."

"Well, it's true. Your mother told me that at about the time you were born. Your grandfather was Polish."

"You're talking about Arthur's father, aren't you? Arthur, the man who brought me up?"

"Yes, who else would I be talking about?"

"But I was always told Arthur's father was from Kent. It seems highly unlikely he can have been Polish."

"Well, he was. Your mother said this very definitely. And she wouldn't have made a mistake about it."

"You're absolutely certain of this, are you? Not from Kent? Not from Kent? Polish?"

"I'm absolutely certain."

Oddly enough, the old woman's strange assertion did not utterly surprise me. This was because, in the years preceding her death, I had become aware of a parallel mystery surrounding the origins of my mother.

I had always believed my mother to be Portuguese, and in her honour had made every effort to learn the language. But when, after many years, I began to know Portuguese well, I was puzzled that her own knowledge of it seemed to be defective. However, her spoken Italian, in the dialect of Naples, was perfect, as I had known since childhood, because she so often boasted of the fact. When I had myself begun to to try to speak Portuguese, at the age of eighteen, I was rather sharply taken up by various Portuguese because my efforts were coming out in Italian. I must have learnt this from her, when I tried to get her to teach me. She made tapes for me on the night before she told me something of what she had done with her house, thus effectively ending our relationship. On this tape I am trying to talk Portuguese as well as I can, but at one point I come out with the words "Tutto a posto," "Everything OK", not "Tudo bem", as it would have been if I had been able to keep the conversation up in Portuguese. My mother also begins to talk perfect standard Italian on the tape.

So the possibility that my father had been a a Pole rather than an Englishman seemed like a variation on a theme. In the years following the initial disclosure, it was confirmed by two other old women that my mother had often told the story of my foreign grandfather at around the time of my conception and birth. One of the old women is my mother's sister, and she is an exceptionally taciturn person, who simply confirmed that my mother had told her the story, but would add no further details, if she knew them.

The third old woman is also ostensibly Portuguese, but like my mother does not appear to know the language perfectly. She was married to an Englishman and has lived in north London for many years. She is largely unknown to the other two, not in contact with them, and has never been friendly with them. She is reticent, like them, but has a more open and sympathetic personality than theirs. Her attitude to my mother, who was simply a friend not a relation, has always been more detached than theirs.

When I visited her once and questioned her about the story, she said at first that she had no memory of it. This was when we were talking in her sitting-room and her husband, who had suffered a stroke, was sitting nearby in a chair, But, as I was leaving her, and we were standing on her doorstep, and her husband was out of earshot, she suddenly said that she did remember the story, and that she thought my grandfather might have been either Polish or German. She said she hardly knew the difference between those two countries, but I do not believe this. On a later occasion, when I questioned her again, she went back on what she had said, as she often does when she has revealed something that may be controversial, by saying that my grandfather was not German and must surely have been a Pole.

None of the three women has ever been able, or perhaps willing, to add anything more to these initial details, although all three are still alive and in good mental health and continue to insist that my mother told them this, and that she was referring to the father of my ostensible father, the man who brought me up, Arthur Ernest Hills, her husband.

With the help of the noted researcher Anthony Adolph - who is utterly convinced, without knowing them, that the stories of the old women are just "old wives' tales" - I have traced Arthur's official ancestry back to a shepherd of Westwell, Kent, in the mid-nineteenth century, Stephen Hills. To the shepherd's piano-tuning son Frederick Charles Hills was apparently born Arthur Ernest Hills, electrical wireman in the naval dockyards of Chatham and Dover, who in turn, at least on paper, was the father of my father, born at Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey on 6th January 1926. He is recorded as Arthur Ernest Hills Junior, and he died in Chichester Hospital on 24th July, 2004. Arthur's birth certificate shows that his mother was Mary Brown,  a Scotswoman, born in Edinburgh on 17th September 1899, whose ancestry Mr Adolph has traced back in Scotland to Angus in the mid-eighteenth century.

I have employed a similarly efficient researcher in Portugal, and, once again, my mother's ostensible ancestry is solid and detailed and can be traced back in the rural area between Mafra and Ericeira to the north of Lisbon, through a long line of peasants and rural proprietors, to the early nineteenth century. In contrast to my father, who was a man effectively without family, I have known since childhood many people in Portugal who seem to be my relations and who, if not affectionate, are generally at least clinging, and therefore they seem to have every likelihood of being my real family.

So, fine Kentish shepherd and och-tha-noo ancestry on one side, innumerable saloios in their peasant berets on the other! In a world of prolier than thou, I should surely be richly satisfied. No one wants to be the mysterious grandson of the Romanovs any more, and only cranks claim to be of the family of Christ. But why did my mother speak Italian better than Portuguese? And why do the old women, the three sybils, tell their story of the unknown Pole or the hastily withdrawn German? To be unsure of the origins of one parent may be regarded as a misfortune, but to be unsure of the origins of two looks remarkably like... what?

But there is no one to provide reminiscences on my father's side, and vague and self-contradictory if insistent old biddies on my Mum's. So, in recent years, I have entered the curious world of genetic genealogy, courtesy of the famous and ostensibly highly reputable American firm, Family Tree DNA. From my experience of this science, admittedly limited and not regarded by me in any very sympathetic spirit, it appears to have all the infallibility of early Christian theology, and to possess much of the interest. But it only serves to demonstrate an analogy of how many angels can dance on the end of a pin.

After many courteous, impersonal and dogmatic exchanges with the learned experts of the said organisation, and endless useless upgrades with substantial honorariums attached, I have no close matches on my father's line and belong to no identifiable sub-clade on my mother's. Therefore what I have learnt of thepossible  problematic origins of either has been virtually nil.

On her side, nothing suggests ancestry in either Portugal or Italy, the countries she seems to have been connected with, but there are vast numbers of very distant matches, and not a single close one, in many parts of the world. In the listing called Ancestral Origins, for instance, Iran is quite well represented, and there are also many Ashkenazi and Mizrachi Jews. But there are also many of everyone else, and no real evidence anywhere to say whether she herself was Jewish.

In contrast to the remarkable world spread on Ancestral Origins in the maternal line, of  23,931 people tested on the paternal line in England I match only one at a single genetic remove, but at the insignificant level of 12 markers, and I initially had no name for the person. I was eventually, on my request, and with some difficulty, given an email for him, and I seem to remember receiving a very vague answer which said the man's ancestry was Welsh. There was also a match at a genetic remove of one at 12 markers among under 700 people tested in Greece, and I was also given an email for this person, but it proved unobtainable. I remember this area of the evidence only vaguely and the learned experts did not clarify it much.

I had six matches at two genetic removes on the paternal line, and these included someone called (or calling himself) Andy Hills, so he shared my surname. But his email was unobtainable, he did not respond to letters, and, because he had only tested to 25 markers and not the recommended 67, it would have been impossible to tell anything useful about what relation we might have, even if I had been able to reach him.

I eventually also managed to elicit emails from two of these other six remote matches. The first, from one of three Americans who shared the surname Rose, knew only that he was of remote English, German and Dutch ancestry in New York State, so no joy there. The fifth match, a rather threatening person known simply as Benbow, almost all of whose details were private,  simply warned me in an unpleasant email not to contact him again.

The sixth of these matches was an American with the Italian surname of DiBartolo, and he did not reply to my contact.

The Population Finder result, which tries to estimate regional ancestry on all lines, but whose results are notably prone to error, estimates that I am 84.80 per cent of Western European (French, Orcadian) ancestry and 15.20 per cent of Middle-Eastern (Jewish) ancestry. According to the learned experts, however, the Jewish proportion could be accounted for by remote ancestry within the medieval Jewish population of the Iberian peninsula.

My sub-clade on the paternal side, which traces the line of fathers is currently called I2a3-L233-Western (this is a fairly new name, and they are about to change it again). It is quite a numerous grouping dating back to the end of the last Ice Age, and I am not closely related to anyone else within it who has tested.

However, I did receive a close match on an extension of the organisation called Y-search, who turned out to be a well-known scientist called Professor Kenneth Nordtvedt, a former advisor to President Reagan, who works closely with Family Tree DNA. But when, in great excitement, having discovered his identity, I contacted him, he immediately confessed that he had faked the match in order to get in touch, he said, with fellow members of this sub-clade. My confidence in Family Tree DNA, already low, was shattered when I discovered that they would resort to providing false matches in order to increase their own information.

The genetic group that includes such an distinguished if dishonest person is strongly present in two areas: one is England; the other is the western end of the North German Plain. The learned experts, including Professor Nordtvedt, say there is nothing whatever to tell which of the two areas my father may have been from. So, just as with my mother, all the information, expense and expert opinion has told me nothing whatever about the origin of my father, except what I already knew (because nobody I knew, including myself, ever showed the faintest interest in Poland), that it was English or German.

So, if I am ever to learn anything more, do I have to go back once again to the often rebarbative elderly lady in the beautiful square in the heart of Lisbon, a person mainly so guarded, occasionally so sharply revealing? She wouldn't tell me anything without a good reason. But the last time I visited her, which was only recently, and this very Catholic lady was still in fine shape, I suddenly saw, on her mantelpiece, a menorah.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

My fourth and last Grand Tour

Tomorrow I begin the journey to my home in Portugal after the fourth and last of my European grand tours. Despite the rich and varied experiences of the last three months, I am filled with sadness. I very much wish to leave the small town in the north of Italy where I am. Yet I do not really want to return to the place in Portugal.

I have come to this town many times because a young friend of mine lives here. I met him on Christmas Day 2009, on the first grand tour, and he was then nineteen years old. I was passing the bar called Pop Bar, saw him inside at the counter, and went in. They were just about to close for the holiday, and he was helping his mother, who was in the back of the shop, to serve any last customer who might turn up. I had come to the town that Christmas to look for other friends who had lived there. They had moved away, but this thoughtful, intelligent and perfectly sweet boy - not quite my type physically - was friendly and asked me if I liked chocolate. So I thought I had found him.

Now it is he who is unobtainable, and I am back to the round of contacts with hoteliers, restaranteurs, and cafe owners, pleasant people enough, but with whom money must always be exchanged. Well, in many ways, as I have said before in this blog, I prefer such contacts. Professional people will never hurt you. For, if they had been people to hurt, you would not have hired their services in the first place or you would swiftly have dispensed with them when the person in question turned nasty.

Yet, just now, as I was writing this piece in the noonday sunshine on a park bench outside the library, in which I had previously been whiling away the time looking at a book called Empire Tales, two female librarians came out and stopped to talk to me. We had such a pleasant chat, and now they have ridden off on their bicycles. That is what I love about the Italians, the way they combine sympathy and a ready approach with the essential human hardness. That is why it is in this one country alone that I could live, and where my own essential solitude could be mitigated, once my travelling years are done.

For how simple in its sophistication is this land, whose long Western shore I have followed for seven hundred miles. And so often it was just a small green verge and a drop of stones between where I sat on the train and the endless sea, all the way from leaving Menton Garavan in France and coming to Ventimiglia, with so many miles until I passed the Gulf of Joy, and Tyrhennian, Ionian and Mediterranean seas met like the weird sisters, beyond the straits, in Sicily. How beautiful it all was. But there have been beautiful times too in France and Germany and Portugal and Switzerland and Spain. What am I worrying about? Is there any human being more free of every problem than myself? Anyone more endlessly fortunate? More totally blessed by God?

And now I must go home. I will drop my bags in the dark house. There will be silence there. I shall  sleep after the long journey. But in the Algarve, too, there will be a shining sea, and at least some pleasant friends. So I do not repine for a moment. My heart is full of love. But it is not for anyone in particular. My house may be dark. But how bright is the shore on which I travel now.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Thoughts on the Madeleine McCann case

Two days ago I went to Lagos, which is on the other side of the Algarve from where I live. There is a pleasant English-language bookshop there called The Owl Story, and I bought a small book, How the Algarve has Changed, by Brian J. Evans. It is an insightful and often funny account of the life that he and his family have lived in Portugal since buying their holiday home in 1984. Curiously enough, it was in that very year that my mother had built for her the house where I now live, and which has caused me as much unhappiness as the Evans family have had pleasure here.

There is a curious uniformity to the life of Portugal, despite its strong regional and local differences. The steep white towns with their red roofs all have vast numbers of identical cake-shops and restaurants serving what one guidebook calls "the joyfully humble national cuisine". Near the chaotic town-centres and elsewhere, there are always many patches of wild waste ground, the product of the endless inheritance disputes, breaking up the landscape of crumbling old buildings, spaghetti-junction roads and newly triumphant supermarkets.

Lagos, for instance, is very like Tavira, much nearer where I live, in the eastern Algarve. Both have a broad, lazy river with boats, a group of churches and forts amid ancient alleys, and a strong connection with the time of the Discoveries. Both are attractive places, which would be very quiet were it not for the animation provided by foreign tourists and residents. Both have very near them a place called Luz, Luz de Tavira and Luz de Lagos (also known as Praia da Luz, because there is a beach there). It is, of course. from the latter place that Madeleine McCann disappeared.

The life I live here is as quiet and relaxing as was the holiday of Kate and Gerry McCann before May 3rd 2007, and on that day and for some time afterwards I was in prison awaiting sentence for having tried to murder a Portuguese and could spare no thoughts for their loss. But, as the years have gone on, and especially since moving to this somnolent region, I have become obsessed with the story of Madeleine and the possibility that behind any large white house in the countryside where I walk, with its huge green gates topped with Golden spikes, lack of doorbell, and ferociously barking dogs, she might be living. If the people in these houses are rich enough, no one ever disturbs them. They come to their gates only if they wish.

If you ask anyone in Portugal what they think might have happened to Madeleine McCann, they will unanimously say they believe the parents to be guilty. But how could anyone believe this, I continually ask myself, looking at the stiff, anguished, desperately sincere faces of Kate and Gerry? Perhaps the Portuguese cannot interpret the body language of foreigners. More likely they are playing dumb. But even English people often believe the parents guilty. Do they realise how strong the chances are of being detected if you have committed a crime and then fall under the media spotlight? Were the McCanns experienced criminals? Did two well-paid doctors need to profit from the sale of their daughter? If they had found her dead, would they not have immediately sought help in their overwhelming sorrow?

The official Madeleine website says that the McCanns and their investigating team believe that Madeleine is no longer in Portugal. I would not be so sure. For a complex series of historical reasons, the social, political and legal system in Portugal, and even its system of personal relations, rely heavily on the regimentation and belittling of the individual. This is only superficially a Western-style democracy. It is not even like Spain. Portugal has no tradition of civil courage or love of liberty. There are no campaigning investigative journalists. All real power is in the hands of the lawyers, and their power rests on the universal belief among the citizens that justice is totally impossible in this country. The Portuguese language is totally unintelligible to outsiders. And the Portuguese are used to keeping their mouths shut. Three hundred people could know something vital here and not of them would speak a word. They would probably suffer a fatal accident if they went to the authorities about Madeleine McCann.

The police, who work on commission, are more interested in endlessly checking cars for minor infractions, or swooping down on English people playing Bingo, than in investigating anything important. All Portuguese have the utmost respect for people of property, unless they are foreigners, as in the case of the McCanns, when they are doubly resented on the grounds of affluence and being British. But a rich native person or family could hide a child here indefinitely, and particularly in the case of Madeleine McCann, because national pride hardly allows the Portuguese to tolerate any solution to the case in which they themselves might be to blame.

There are four places in Portugal called Luz.. The third is a small place in the Alentejo which has been covered by the Alqueva Dam and re-sited elsewhere, and the last is a former parish in the north-western suburbs of Lisbon, the site of the Benfica stadium, the Stadium of Light. They are named after (as far as I know, anyway - perhaps there is also a connection with the Bethel of the Old Testament - or Torah - which was previously called by the Canaanite or Aramaic word, Luz, which means "almond", -  the almond is a symbol of the Algarve) - but I repeat, these are named, as far as I, or anyone else, knows anyway, after churches dedicated to Our Lady of Light, Nossa Senhora da Luz.

She first appeared in about the early fifteenth century, the time of the Discoveries, and she has become a saint particularly venerated in the Portuguese-speaking world. Besides the places in Portugal called Luz, you also find this toponym in the Azores and Brazil. The main railway station in São Paulo is Luz. Also the whole coastline of the south west Iberian Peninsula that is washed by the Atlantic rather than the Mediterranean, the Algarve Coast and that of the adjoining and culturally related area of Spain, is sometimes known as the Costa da Luz (Costa de la Luz in Spanish), perhaps because of some connection with the Virgin Mary.

Could Madeleine have been taken, or ordered to be taken, by some person desperate for a child and suffering from a misplaced devotion to the Virgin? Or to Portuguese nationalism and anti-British feeling? Or, more remotely, to Jewish tradition?

But, of course, the symbolism of light is infinitely various. For instance, the main aesthetic feature of the Nuremberg rallies held between 1934 and 1938 was the so called Cathedral of Light, a dramatic arrangement of searchlights borrowed from the Goering's Luftwaffe, and masterminded by Goebbels, so that by this reasoning one could posit that people of Nazi antecedents had been involved in the kidnapping of Madeleine McCann.

And, oddly enough, the word "luz" also finds a place in modern Hebrew. It is an acronym, of military origin, meaning "schedule". It would refer to a fast, ruthless, effective operation, very much what the kidnapping of Madeleine McCann was, in fact.

But back to the Virgin.

Oddly enough her actual appearance is said to have taken place not at the place where the church is, but at a small village much nearer where I myself live, within walking distance in fact, an otherwise unremarkable place called Fonte Santa, which is a little inland and to the west of Altura, beyond the deathly quiet small town of Cacela Nova and north of the railway line.

If you cross this line going towards Pocinho, and go past some land and a cottage in the distance along a road called the Estrada do Monte Madeira which belongs to the family of the man I tried to murder, after a while you reach a fork in the road, and there is a turning towards Fonte Santa, and in the other direction a very small road, almost a track, goes towards Portela, Horta and the Torre dos Frades, a fine eighteenth-century mansion owned by a rich family, some of whose members I vaguely know.

Also, a little way along this road, to the north, along a track called the Estrada dos Pirinéus, there is another house of the eighteenth century, half-ruined and pink, and beyond that, to the north, in the area called Coutada, I sometimes see what must be just a farm, but which is all yellow and looks like a large, entirely deserted and heavily fortified modern compound, with high walls, barbed wire, security cameras, the lot, but silent, because this time there are no dogs.

And going beyond the Torre dos Frades to the east, just before you reach a small t-junction and an old-fashioned windmill on a height, exactly at the place called Horta, there is a long low white house that is lived in by someone I have made a friend, but whom perhaps I shall betray.

This unexpected small region fascinates me. And why? What really can lie here? In the café in Fonte Santa I am served in silence. They have never heard of the Virgin of Fonte Santa, or say they have not. Then I walk  towards the places I have mentioned. Cars drive past me at speed. The houses sizzle in the sun. The dogs bark and rush to the gates. If they come out, I have to stop. But in the real country roads I never see a soul.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Wintering in the Algarve

I once had a friend in London - although he wasn't a friend really, more a failed writer I had taken up - whose house (dark, dusty and reminiscent of something from the Victorian age) contained an extensive private library. One small shelf in it was devoted to books about "wintering abroad". These had mainly been written in the Edwardian era or in the 1920s, and reassured anxious rentiers of both sexes that neither Nice nor Bordighera, nor any of their rival places of resort, presented excessive perils for English gentlefolk.

Times had changed when I used to go to lunch with "the aesthete", as I called him. Bordighera was no longer in fashion, and neither he nor I were rentiers, although we might as well have been, since we were both funding our lifestyles by running up enormous debts. Mine were all to the Royal Bank of Scotland in the form of mortgage, overdraft, credit card and loan. But he had a whole stack of plastic which he sometimes used to flip through with his fingers to show me, as if shuffling a pack of playing-cards.

We used to joke that he would be the first debt millionaire. But he couldn't winter abroad because he had to be in London for many days of each month to find out how much he owed and pay off something on every card. So he had to content himself with brief but triumphant gastronomic tours of northern France, with the Riviera at Christmas. Things were only so good in those days in London before the crash.

I regarded my unloved host with a certain amount of contempt and foreboding, and the idea of wintering abroad didn't appeal to me, because I still hoped, as he did not, for some great literary success in London. But time brings in its revenges, and while the aesthete is still, as far as I know, tending the vines in his stony town garden, I am occupying a house for this winter with peach and lemon trees in the extreme south of Europe. I haven't stayed at my house for the whole winter before, and intend to shelter here in Altura for a couple more months before I venture towards more rigorous climes.

The Algarve isn't fashionable either - another friend of mine, thank God not a writer, calls it "the Al-grave" - but my circle of elderly friends here is expanding, my mad druggy companion Joaquim intermittently performs his capers as we wander the streets, the supply of lemons in the garden for my almond liquers (have I spelt that correctly?) is holding out, and I have engaged the services of a local shrink who, for the moment at least, is treating me entirely free.

After lunch I retire to bed for rest, or to my table in the garden for Christian study. Meanwhile, a Spanish woman neighbour, Josefa, who was the only person in Altura to help my mother when she was desperately ill - and who also keeps a restaurant with her husband where I often take lunch - has offered to do my washing for the same price I would pay if I went to the launderette. Oh, and the sun shines brightly every day, although it is a little cold.

In moments not filled with rest, meals, Christian Study or Joaquim clinging to my neck, I am devoting myself to my genealogy, as elderly rentiers have done for many generations when they themselves are about to turn into a tree. There are mysteries on both sides of my family. I wrote about the one on my mother's side in my last post. I have made absolutely no progress in finding out any more about that.

On my father's side, there are stories, told to me by three ancient women who knew my mother at the time of my conception and birth, and who are remembering what she said to them, that my Dad was a German or Pole. According to one of the women, my mother met my father on a London tube train, when she got her finger stuck in the door, and I also very vaguely remember Mum telling me this story from my youth. She was naturally in great pain and distress, and the gallant gentleman sprang to her aid, took her to the hospital and, at a later date, having obtained her phone number, made further urgent advances.

Bu the man who brought me up, to whom my mother was legally married, an Englishman (it seems) called Arthur Ernest Hills, always told me that he had first met my Mum at the Lyceum Ballroom in the Strand. It was at a dance to which Mum had gone with her sister Augusta. As far as I can remember, Arthur never mentioned the story about having met Mum on the tube train. It therefore looks as if my real father was not the fanatically English person my mother met at the dance, but the gallant gentleman who sprang to her aid on the train, the one who really loved her, the mysterious Pole or German.

Will I ever know whether my Dad was a German or a Pole, if the station was Charing Cross or Cockfosters? Perhaps not, but as I sip my almond liqueur in the garden in the sunny afternoon, and read the Gospel of John and then the Gospel of Mark, and contemplate the peach and the lemon tree, I love the gallant gentleman who lived in London once and now winters abroad.