Lisbon: Brief impressions

We went to Lisbon for four nights, five days. These are therefore very fleeting impressions. Stick with it, I get the moans over at the start.

To start with, it’s hilly. It’s not good for anybody with mobility difficulties. That said, the youngest Miss O. coped well and we all quickly got more stamina. Last thing in the day returning to our apartment was a slog, though.

We rented a flat using Airbnb; we have also done this in Malta and Croatia, and have very good experiences. It was a lovely little apartment, but our first impression was that Lisbon is scruffy and dirty. This of course varies from area to area, but that first impression lingers. Some street washing, washing of shop fronts and repairs would help, though no doubt the economic circumstances would be a factor. Captain Blamey, in the Poldark novels by W.S. Graham, comments on the filthy streets in the 1790s. No change there then.

Oh yes, the economic circumstances. Expensive. We always seemed to be paying out and there always seem to be new costs to visit different locations. Yes, it’s a holiday; but 5 euros for a milk shake is ridiculous. And now we come to the food… again, it’s a brief impression, but we found little that was good. I tried a dried salted cod dish, meant to be a speciality; it tasted as you would expect a piece of cod that had been dried, salted, soaked and fried to taste. Boring. Nasty. I did finish it.

End of moans. The good bits. The trams are tremendous. The old (crowded) ones on the tourist routes rattle up and down precipitous hills, just clearing buildings, cars and people. The new ones are efficient and comfortable. Public transport is cheap and reliable, unless you buy the wrong tickets (like we did).

We visited Sintra by rail. It has an amazing Moorish castle and the spectacular Pena Palace, built for King Consort Ferdinand, a cousin of Queen Victoria, on the remains of an old monastery. It is coloured red and yellow, clings to the hillside and gives amazing views. A tuk-tuk ride up to it was the best money we spent all holiday, as it would otherwise have taken two hours.

The buildings in Lisbon are varied and picturesque, if sometimes tatty. We did not expect the astonishing ceramic tiles which cover so many of them. Others are coloured. There was a horrendous earthquake in 1755, which flattened a large part of the city, and much of the architecture therefore dates from after that, very attractively. Wrought iron balconies are common, sadly sometimes in various states of decay. Wandering round is a real pleasure. There is an opulent range of building materials, including extensive use of marble. The pavements are everywhere covered with mosaics of stone tiles; sadly, they are often stained and in need of a wash.

A real attraction of the city (especially for Miss O.) are the funiculars and elevators. The Elevador de Santa Justa, in particular, is a beautiful iron structure, leading to spectacular views of the city, especially at night.

The city is on the Tagus; there is a wonderful square which must have once upon a time made a beautiful entrance to Portugal. We wish we had discovered this at the start of the week. The cruise ship passengers seem to start here on their brief forays into Lisbon.

On our final day we took a boat tour across the Tagus and then up it to Belem, in the North of Lisbon. This was a lovely end to our week and well worth it. The views of the bridge (based on the Golden Gate in San Francisco), the statue of Christ (based on that in Rio de Janeiro) and the city were beautiful. As always, pictures don’t do them justice.

Finally, I should add that the citizens of Lisbon are polite, and helpful if asked. The police were lovely to Miss O, who wanted her picture taken with them all. It is an extraordinarily racially mixed city, yet feels harmonious and unthreatening at all hours. It was beautifully warm, going up to 30 degrees C. on our last day, and 26 degrees at 9.30 at night. Our impressions are based on a brief visit; others may have a very different experience, especially of the food.

(My thanks to Mrs Oblique for her contributions to this.)


Decluttering 4: Why?

You may remember some blog posts I wrote a while ago on decluttering. You may not. You may be trying to forget them. I have been pondering further.

This original train of thought was started by the gift of a book from the eldest Miss Oblique. See Decluttering 1: Books. While not totally buying into the Marie Kondo method/ philosophy, I certainly took some of its ideas on board. However, a half-hearted approach does not really work. My bookshelves are slowly accumulating detritus:


It doesn’t help that we have had a lot of work done on the house… and that the second Miss Oblique has moved back in with us. Thus one of our spare bedrooms looks like this:


It’s hard throwing stuff out. A lot of our clutter is left over from parents, even grandparents. Giving away something that belonged to someone you loved; giving away something that was given to you with love; are you giving away an assurance of love?

It doesn’t help that there are two of us, with different views on the clutter. We both want to organise better, but ownership is an issue.

There are people who declutter their lives totally. Monks and nuns are well-known examples; I suppose they do this to focus on their spiritual life.

Tramps also have decluttered, though probably not often intentionally. So have rough sleepers, almost certainly not intentionally.

On a more affluent note, I have always been fascinated by the idea of living in a suitcase. For certain employments, this is very feasible. A laptop and a carefully stocked bag would enable one to live in hotels indefinitely, given a suitable income. However,  I believe that many people living like this have a lot of possessions in storage, somewhere in the world. Storage is hardly decluttering, just evading the issue.

As I run out of further things to say on the theme, I realise that as usual I have reached no conclusions on my (implicit) question: Why declutter? Tentatively, I would say that modern life is over-complicated and that removing clutter does make it easier. In a spiritual sense, possessions are vexations to the soul. How best to go about decluttering is eluding me.

A final thought; I was intrigued by a TV programme, now quite a while ago, which featured older people in Australia who had gone wandering, gone on the road, in camper vans, tents and the like. One gentleman said that every month he looked in his bag and discarded one item. That’s decluttering in the extreme.


Move Over, Linnaeus: A digression on birds

I love birds. I’m no ornithologist or twitcher. I do not have a ‘lifetime list’, but I’m always pleased to spot something new. I was intrigued to see and hear parakeets in Surrey. Buzzards have made a big comeback in recent years in our part of the world, and it’s always a thrill to see them wheeling and hear them mewing as they try to catch a thermal. Pigeons are always a source of amusement. Nothing seems to perturb them. They are hopeless slackers when it comes to nest building. They throw sticks at a branch; if three or more stick, they lay their eggs, looking surprised when it falls down. How they ever reproduce is beyond me. This pigeon has built a far better nest than our local birds ever do:


My favourites are house sparrows. Again they’ve made a comeback locally. They are invincibly perky and cheerful.

(Walking through Eastleigh on an October evening, we stopped, hearing a loud noise of birds in a tree on Market Street. I think they were sparrows roosting, although we could not see them. Apparently when rooks roost, the most prestigious spot is the top. The ones on the bottom run the risk of being splattered with excrement. But I digress.)

The following system of avian classification was developed by a long lost friend and I some 40 years ago. I seem to remember my father adding his analytical touch. Now, I feel, its time has come.

Basically, all birds fall into four species: sparrows, blackbirds, gulls and parrots.

All small birds are sparrows. Wrens are small shy sparrows. Robins are sparrows with red breasts (and aggressive behaviour. Don’t cross them.)

The species ‘blackbird’ includes thrushes (brown blackbirds). Rooks, crows and ravens are all large blackbirds. You can generally tell them by the dull colours.

Anything dwelling on or near water is a gull. Ducks are obviously gulls which sit on the water. Albatrosses are very large gulls.

The species ‘parrot’ covers any large bird that is not a blackbird or gull. A golden eagle… woodpeckers….. a jay. Again, it should generally be obvious. I don’t have the space or time or energy to resurrect the debate as to whether a magpie is a partly albino blackbird or a black and white parrot.

Ignore all those who say there should only be two species: blackbirds and parrots. This over-simplifies the rich variety of bird life. And scoff at those who want to introduce domestic fowls as a fifth category. Hens, turkeys and the like are obviously parrots.

(Anybody who says that all birds are different types of sparrow is just being silly.)

Beautiful Books

I am lucky enough to own a few books that I consider really beautiful (not valuable…. it’s not the same thing.) Here’s a selection. The pictures don’t do them justice.

Neuromancer by William Gibson

dscn6199There is a little story behind this one. I had this book in a battered paperback edition, with a horrible cover. I asked the eldest Miss Oblique if should be kind enough to make me a new cover. Instead, she bought me this lovely hardback edition, with a nice texture to the cover and eminently readable print. I don’t consider a book beuatiful if it’s not readable. (It’s a great book: the original cyberpunk novel. More on William Gibson in a  later post, I think.)

Looking at London by Ronald Searle and Kaye Webb

dscn6200I have read this book endlessly, as can be seen. It is a series of sketches of people and places in London by Ronald Searle, with commentaries by his then wife, Kaye Webb. It’s battered but lovely, with a soft cover and what was an attractive dust cover. Both drawings and writing are charming. This book belonged to my grandfather. (See My grandfather’s books: A gentle tribute to a gentle man )

Gong Dreaming (Parts 1 and 2) by Daevid Allen

dscn6201It’s very hard to explain the contents of these books to anybody who doesn’t know about the Planet Gong. Let’s just say they are autobiographies of that totally individual and remarkable musician and poet, Daevid Allen…. or Bert Camembert….. or Dingo Virgin….. or….. They centre on the formation of the band called Gong, which you may know is one of my all-time favourites. (See Musical Bodies) Much of the text has a philosophical and spiritual nature. The illustrations, photographic or otherwise, are fascinating. The reliability of the facts is….. suspect. To my pleasure, my copy of Gong Dreaming 2 is signed; not that I approve of cults of personality, you understand.

Rice’s Architectural Primer by Matthew Rice

Another gift, this time from the FPs. This is a beautiful book, as well as a useful one. It is what it says; the illustrations are lovely and lovingly annotated. The paper is satisfyingly good quality.

Tour de France 100 by Richard Moore

dscn6207This time, the contents of the book (mostly photographs) are what make it impressive. There are photographs from the beginning of the Tour to the 100th (the Bradley Wiggins victory). As with television coverage, the landscapes are perhaps the most visually striking aspect, but the cyclists, from the black and white supermen to the modern supermen, are the heroes.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

dscn6205Again, this was a present, again from the eldest Miss Oblique, a lover of books and lovely things. In fact it was a retirement gift. It’s a charming text, written in 1938; but it’s here because it is a beautiful book, in a modern edition by Persephone Books. As you can see, it has lovely endpapers; it has lovely illustrations; it’s just lovely, and another good argument for ‘real’ books rather than e-books. (Again, see various past posts; I have decided both formats are good.)

(On reading this through, I realise I have not addressed what makes a beautiful book. In this case, I only claim the beauty to be in the eye of the beholder.)