On Marxism and Porridge Chapter 1

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Chapter 1 (v.1) - Chapter 1

Submitted: August 07, 2016

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On Marxism and Porridge:

 

Summer 1997

I spent the summer of 1997, in the weeks before I began life at an all boys public school in South West London, with my late grandfather in his old colonial house home in Florianópolis, a very beautiful and affluent island off the south coast of Brazil, today known as much for producing many of Brazil’s top models (Rafael Verga, Solange Wilvert, Monique Olsen) as it is for its colonial links with Azorean culture.

The island’s native population is primarily descended from immigrant German, Polish and Italian ancestors, although increasingly more recent arrivals from abroad have been attracted to the island’s Caipirinha-soaked lounges, stylish beach bars and cavernous megaclubs and non-stop party atmosphere.

But away from all the buzz of a nightlife and rapidly growing economy that never sleeps, my grandfather (a Brazilian of Spanish descent) found a spiritual home of sorts in  the historic centre of Florianópolis with its old colonial buildings and authentic seafood restaurants - the architecture, dialect and cuisine of these quaint old fishing villages serving as a portal into the region’s profound connection with Portuguese history.

It was in this traditional and rustic environment that the summer of 1997 was spent by my grandfather and I hunting, fishing and walking on white sand beaches, whilst he lectured for me around nine hours a day about the social and economic failings of western liberal Capitalism.

By this stage the iconic status that my grandfather’s academic career had bestowed upon him had become a distant memory, and there were signs that his mental and physical health were in rapid decline. However for all the very many accusations that were made against him during his later years in cultural exile, he was still at this stage a very vivid storyteller and a compelling thinker.

Although he spent most of his later days fishing and hunting in relative obscurity, if you had the good fortune to get this broad shouldered and physically imposing, tanned and blue eyed Brazilian man talking about a political issue, he did was so with a manic intensity that was frankly astonishing. He spoke with all the authority of someone who had once been considered one of the great thinkers of his generation and with a combination of down to earth wisdom and surprising flair that betrayed his Latin roots.

One on particular day, he spoke to me about the plight of the writer in Britain in 1997.

“Intellectuals in the 1960s felt strongly about the injustices and rigidities in British society and we fought hard against them with success. We made an impact in those days. Thanks in part to the student revolts across Europe of the 1968 period, certain barriers have now been broken and the UK has become a more open, tolerant and informal society - more so than ever before in its history - and perhaps an easier place to live in. But in the process the edges have been blurred and it has also become a duller place - a sort of porridge. And it’s not easy to write about a porridge. So there is a price to pay for normalcy.”

As he explained about the porridge, he gestured with his hands as if to stir the bowl. I couldn’t help but smirk. At 12 years old the world I belonged to was a million miles away from this one. At one of the UK’s top public schools, people sounded and spoke like characters in a Emily Bronte novel. I suppose you could call these boys the modern incarnation of the old English aristocracy. By middle aged Oxford and Cambridge educated teachers who smoked pipes in tweed jackets and spoke with cut-glass English accents, we were taught how to think criticially and how to break down every single metaphor or analogy with alarming precision.

So I stood there and thought to myself. Ok, I know that this man once had a glittering academic career. Ok I know this man is my mother’s father. But watching him now as a wild haired, crazed eyed man stirring an imaginary bowl of porridge, who everyone thinks is crazy, can I really take this guy seriously? There was something so straight to the point, so difficult to deny about that image of thick, gluey, creamy porridge, that it sounded almost sounded stupid. The whole idea was just so Brazilian. But when all was said and done, however much inbuilt snobbery my upper class English school environment had implanted in me, somehow the porridge thing worked.

I remember thinking to myself, “Look this guy might have his own way of seeing the world. But in the end at least when he has an idea that he wants you to understand, he makes sure you understand it. Don’t say anything. Just keep your mouth shut and learn from the guy. When you get older, you can have put forward your own opinion about things.”

He asked me:

“Do you understand what I’m saying, or do you want me to explain it another way?”

I replied:

“No, I understand and actually I agree with you.”

With that, he handed me his shotgun with one hand and his cigar with another.

“Good. Now come on, let’s go hunting. You’re not in London now. Try and make a man of yourself.”

(I know what you are thinking. As it happens, I did not start smoking properly until the age of 14, something my mother to this day insists stunted my vertical development and prevented me from reaching 6 foot 2, like my brother. Along with the Holocaust and the Gulag, she still maintains that this was the third great tragedy of the 20th Century).

During that summer my grandfather seemed like a man on a mission. I wondered whether the shadows were closing in and all the various and vigorous tests he put me through were disturbing manifestations of some early precursors of his later psychotic episodes. Or was there method to his madness? To this day I am still not sure whether I can honestly answer this question. I am certain that at the time I decided to ride the storm.

In order to survive the barrage of physical and mental examinations that I was being put through I had to believe that there was a level of order outside the chaotic confines of his mind – some type of higher order that would lead me to greatness when I had ascended its treacherous peaks and steered past its emotional dead ends.

Examples of this testing include but are in no way limited to the following:

The Noble Art:

“Wake up. I’ve got a surprise for you.”

With these delicate words I was marched down the seafront, away from the wealthy, civilised and largely white part of town into one of Brazil’s many poor, dangerous, ramshackle shanty towns. I did wonder.

Finally after having navigated through a series of increasingly crooked and unkempt back alleys I saw it. What my grandfather called the best boxing club in the town was in reality no more than a seemingly crumbling boxing ring in the middle of a disused carpark.

For a period in the 1990s, this one club produced more great fighters than the rest of Southern Brazil combined. One boxing ring among tens of thousands; one tiny cohort of impoverished kids against hundreds of millions. A boxing mecca that seemed to defy explanation or belief.

Had some genetic mutation spread throughout the local vicinity without touching the surrounding part of the country? Of course not. Its success was simply down to the coming together of factors reflecting a beguiling and sad truth that has elevated other people from time to time on our planet. These kids had this boxing ring and nothing else.

This gravel enclosure a couple of miles from where my grandfather lived – cold in winter, ferociously hot in summer – with plants growing through the floor was not luxurious but it did have one advantage. It was open 24 hours.

All around it were people pumping iron with makeshift gym equipment and rusted free weights. Big, tattooed and very scary looking people.

Almost without thinking about it, I stood up as tall as I could and tried not to look too scared.

Meanwhile the Afro-Brazilian boxers sparring in the ring and working out around it had stopped what they were doing and were staring at us, trying to figure out what was going on. What were two guys like us doing in a place like this? We looked so out of place because of the way we were dressed, the colour of our skin…we had crossed the line into enemy territory. Was this some type of joke?

The guys came closer to us and then surrounded us, circling us like wolves. A very pretty (probably German) Brazilian girl with blonde hair and blue eyes stood and watched wearing a look of confusion and curiosity on her face and not much in the way of clothes on her body apart from a bikini and hotpants. I imagined she was some type of street prostitute.

My grandfather’s legendary sense of calm and composure was not affected. He called out aggressively to one of the guys sparring in the ring in Portuguese.

“Hey you! Get over here. You’ve got a new challenger.”

“No fucking way, I’m not fighting the guy.” My protestations to my grandfather fell on deaf ears. I heard one of the gathering crowd ask another, “What is that funny language he is speaking?”

At this point in the story, a little bit of background is highly instructive. During my school days, something started which stayed with me until the end, owing largely to a rumour about a guy trying to steal my mobile phone who was (quite literally) thrown into the River Thames which took on mythological proportions and my peculiar and unpredictable habit of exploding once in a while to fight anything that moved. I had a reputation for being a tough guy. As a young, fairly troubled boy with well disguised low self-esteem, this reputation and the face I wore to protect it were very very important to me.

As with anyone who boarded at school, there are many pictures of myself surrounded by my friends, hanging out, playing video games, messing around in the school dorms. These pictures are extraordinary. In each and every one of them, you see scores of very good looking, milky skinned and very well to do white British guys with mops of blonde, curly hair, smiling profusely with perfect white teeth and seemingly not a care in the world. In the middle of the tableau of wholesome upper middle class British public school life, you see one kid who sticks out like a sore thumb. Sporting a vest, a thick solid gold chain around his neck/watch around his wrist and a menacing look on his tanned face, framed by jet black hair, he could pass for a character from the Sopranos, a prison convict, or a wife beater. This was me.

Let it never be said that in multicultural Britain, questions of ethnic origin have no influence on a child’s development.

Having started working out with free weights at the age of 12 (another something my mother to this day insists stunted my vertical development and prevented me from reaching 6 feet 2…) my physique was deceptively muscular, if slight – a look which kind of stuck with me for life. You could easily have mistaken me for a character from a Stephen King novel.

I was the go to man when a problem had to be sorted out. The guy all the other boys went to in order to enforce the law. I was the father figure to the hundreds. I was the king of the pack.

But I was not stupid. At this point in this story, another little bit of background is highly instructive. When you considered the fuller picture, what did it really mean to be the tough guy, the bad boy of one of the best schools in the UK? A school that has been attended by British Prime Minister’s, Rothschilds and a certain Chancellor of the Exchequer whose unfortunate lasting legacy (undoubtedly) will be to be remembered as the politician who was too posh to be a politician? The very obvious answer was: not a great deal.

At an all boys public school in London, I ruled with an iron fist. I was feared and respected in equal measure. In the heart of an outdoor boxing club in a favela in downtown Brazil, I was just the skinny white kid. A piece of meat about to be beaten to pulp by another bigger, tougher piece of meat. There was very little to stop me being stabbed in the neck by a desperate street kid who needed to sell my clothes for money for food. I was less than a nobody. I was the walking dead.

As my opponent approached me, the size difference between us became frighteningly apparent. He was at least 3 (possibly more) years older than me, a good 3 inches taller and the muscles in his body were developed in a way that I had never seen at 12 years old. He was covered in tattoos with cryptic and mysterious designs and he had a scar below his left eye which looked like the product of a knife or acid attack.

He walked over to me, smiling all the way. I took my top off to reveal the body of a child – naked for all to see. We stood like a picture of contrasts. I noticed I was still wearing my watch – a TAG Heuer worth about a couple of thousand – which once no longer covered by my sleeve immediately glistened brightly in the glare of the merciless Brazilian sun like a diamond attracting unwanted attention.

Big mistake.

The guy looked straight into my eyes and said in Portuguese:

“Why do you look so scared? Is it because I’m black?”

The watching audience burst into laughter. Even the pretty blonde.

Definitely a prostitute.

“Hey man, that’s a nice watch. Can you tell me the time?”

He grabbed my wristwatch and pulled it towards him. My instant reaction was to pull my wrist back but within milliseconds I could tell from his grip that he was a lot stronger than me. Rather than reveal this dangerous truth to everyone, I let him have my wrist, forced a sarcastic smile, tried to look as cool as I could and sneered:

“Fuck you, dickhead”.

My watch was more than just a watch. It was a gift from my mother that had become my armour, part of my persona, part of me. Now I would be returning back to the UK without the watch – having to explain to my mother, my schoolfriends and everyone else what had happened to my watch. What had happened to me. How my jaw had been wired shut whilst I was robbed in broad daylight. Oooh. What a tough guy. I would be returning back to the UK as a fraud.

I looked up at my grandfather one last time, expectantly. Yes the old bastard was as mad as a brush. That was obvious. But surely my grandfather would stop this?

“Ok, come on, come on! Enough. I feel like I’m watching a couple of women here. Are you boys going to fight or stand around kissing?”

I put my fists up and pretended to look confident. But before I knew it, I was struck by something with such speed I didn’t even see it. What the hell was that? A rock someone had thrown at my face? A bullet? I grunted as my head tilted back and I felt something warm, trickling down my face and into my mouth. That coppery, metallic taste. My mouth was full of it. It filled so quickly I tried to spit it out but it was so thick it hung from my mouth for seconds before hitting the floor. I winced as I watched the thick, red, viscous substance take forever to hit the sandy golden ground. My blood. I was choking on my own blood.

Wikipedia defines “bloodlust” as “a desire to see blood being shed”; “it usually refers to a desire to see blood being shed in combat”.

Everything slowed down. I scanned the scene and saw faces lit up with incredulous smiles of joy and laughter. My fists automatically clenched tight. My shoulders hunched. I was the king of the pack. I was going to have to show everyone.

Fuck my grandfather. Fuck my mother for sending me here. Fuck Brazil. Fuck race politics and fuck poverty. I would single handedly wipe the floor with every single one of these street kids and the girl too if I had to. I was happy to approach the endgame. If I died, I died. It didn’t matter to me. This story was going to end my way, not anyone else’s. I would have the last word. I had to lay the down the law.

I proceeded to break every bone in his face.

On the way back home my grandfather asked me how I knew I could beat him. I didn’t answer him. How could I? I didn’t know. Neither did my grandfather. That was the whole point.

He was supposed to be a great man. But his sick experiment had put two kids at risk. He had shown no regard for the welfare of a poor, Afro-Brazilian boy or for his own grandson.

“If you don’t want to answer now, I’ll ask you in a few hours once you’ve calmed down.”

I sighed and shook my head in disgust at the man, still wiping the blobs of congealed blood from my face with the back of my now swollen and blistered hands.

“It’s difficult to explain. I just know. It’s like the other guy is moving in slow motion but I’m moving in high speed. Somehow I just seem to know where to hit him to beat him. I must have a high testosterone level or something.”

“Hahaha. I knew it!”

I had passed my first test.

I never saw my grandfather again after that summer. He died some years later as a result of a sudden heart attack.


© Copyright 2017 Elliot Borges. All rights reserved.

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