For the first few kilometres after leaving Cabo da Roca, I walked a meandering road that tracked the coastline to my right, using my umbrella as I had intended i.e. as a parasol. Holding it aloft was a tiresome business though, so instead I threaded the handle through the lopped section of my satchel strap. So log as I rested my hand on the umbrella handle, (so holding it down rather than up) the pole rested firmly against my right shoulder with the cooling canopy above my head. Not that I really needed it now that I had my improvised hat – but it did make life a little more comfortable.
The resulting assembly was I found, a little cumbersome. A large leather bag containing several bottles of water and with an umbrella woven into its strap as a kind of counterweight generates a curious rocking motion that reminded me of white colonials sitting under ornate pavilions glued to the backs of elephants. Not that any pangs of post-colonial guilt were going to persuade me to abandon my umbrella – not if it was contributing to my post-colonial comfort. But during the descent towards Malveira da Serra, certain other factors made their presence felt.
The first was the wind. At Cabo da Roca and in the immediately surrounding area, there had been very little of it but even so, each time the occasional gust did disturb the otherwise perfect calm, it was quite obvious that an umbrella would be a liability on a windy day. The second was embarrassment; the nagging suspicion that an umbrella did not sit comfortably with the carefully cultivated image of myself as heroic explorer – at least not when it was open. Rolled up and dangling carelessly from my hand or satchel strap it, it wasn’t anything like so bad; an eccentric precaution against the unlikely event of a freak rainstorm but no more. And in that state it also performed an unexpected but important secondary function – it protected me from passing cars.
As I gradually and reluctantly concluded that for reasons of personal dignity I really couldn’t stroll these sun-drenched lanes with an umbrella over my head, I resorted more and more frequently to holding it furled and useless in my right hand – not long enough or durable enough to be used as a walking stick, it hung impotently in the air, protruding a few inches into the road.
That was the situation when at about 1 O’clock, I heard a car coming towards me around a left hand bend – which since I was walking on the left was also a blind bend. My technique in this situation is I think pretty common if slightly counter-intuitive. I moved slightly to the right and towards the middle of the road so that the driver would see me a little sooner and have more time to avoid me.
This particular driver however, seemed determined to get as close to me as possible if not actually hit me. To be fair, I may have misread his intentions. Maybe he was changing the CD in his stereo or paying a little too much attention to his mobile phone to see me until the last moment whereupon swerved violently. But in that moment it seemed to me that he was swerving as much to avoid the tip of the umbrella as the hapless pedestrian. True or not, I became convinced that deliberately pointing the umbrella into the road was a good idea.
Maybe it created the impression that I took up a little more room and psychologically, in that vital split second when the driver registered my presence, the fact that a large part of that room was filled with nothing more substantial than an umbrella made no practical difference. In a more cynical vein I speculated that drivers who enjoyed ‘buzzing’ pedestrians were less likely to risk their precious paintwork grazing a hard wooden pole than a soft fleshy leg. Maybe (more than likely I thought) the exact mechanism varied from driver to driver – but it seemed to work so I kept doing it. Where the bends were particularly sharp and the visibility particularly poor, I even held the umbrella straight out at arms length to give oncoming drivers the earliest possible warning of my presence – and as puzzling a sight as it must have been, the umbrella continued to work its magic.
At around a quarter to two, I reached a small and friendly looking supermarket in Malveira and stopped for Lunch. My feet were holding out pretty well I thought and I had no real concerns about my rate of progress. I intended to strike inland from Malveira to Alcabideche, where I would join the N9 south to Estoril - onetime home I believe of the Portuguese Grand Prix. At Estoril I would rejoin the coast and walk up the north side of the Tagus estuary towards Lisbon.
By the time I reached Alcabideche at about 3 O’clock I was becoming aware of a slight burning sensation in my heels; three hours in and my feet were beginning to express their misgivings about this foolhardy venture. Still at this stage they confined themselves to a quiet murmur of discontent. ‘Noted’ I thought – best I could do really.
The town seemed to be divided into 2 quite distinct sections; an old section clustered around a cross-roads and a new section a little further east of modern dwellings set back from a network of newly laid roads and roundabouts. And on closer inspection, the new houses were not only set back from the road but completely cut off from it by the interposition of sturdy green steel wire fencing several metres high.
As I peered through the mesh I could see brand new streets crossed at intervals by white steel gates – open now but clearly intended to close the road whenever the residents felt it appropriate. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that this part of town distrusted and wanted to protect itself from the other part. It seemed to me as it always does when faced with the phenomenon of the ‘gated community’, an oxymoronic, mean-spirited, and above all flawed response to what the security industry would like us to see as the rising tide of sub-humanity; to give up on the idea of a community that polices and if necessary modifies the behaviour of its members and take the alternative course – restrict community membership to exclude any elements whose behaviour might be in need of any modification.
I was intending at this point to draw a parallel with the frankly appalling but nonetheless enjoyable Kurt Russell film, ‘Escape from New York’ – which starts from the premise that in a dystopian future, New York has been sealed off and the whole place turned into a prison run entirely by its inmates. But the comparison is inadequate. It doesn’t do justice to radical vision of the gated community movement. What it seeks to do is to turn the idea of imprisonment on its head. Its advice to the law-abiding is to leave the criminals on the streets and move into the prisons themselves.
There - now I’ve said it and I feel better. I understand that for some people, developments like this are the only pragmatic option; I have no quarrel with sheltered housing for the elderly - but for everybody? Isn’t that just capitulation? Mind you – think of the tax dollars. We could save an awful lot of money if we just handed responsibility for security back to the people who need it – and who better, surely? Get enough of the population into private gated communities and you’d hardly need a police force at all – so long as you could persuade them to stay behind their gates. But that ought to be easy; they’re already scared; scare them a little more and you’ll never see them in the open again.
And if for some reason you are attached to the idea of a police force (perhaps you like the uniform), could still keep your tax-cuts if you allowed that hitherto hidebound public service, to make a modernising foray or two into the private security business - charging fees for patrolling private estates and cutting down on the cost of what you might call ‘traditional’ home insurance. Or why not just restore the citizen’s right to bear arms – criminals have guns why shouldn’t the law-abiding?
It’s an easy case to make and the riposte is feeble by comparison. It amounts to little more than a vote for optimism and a romantic attachment to the idea that liberty and security are not necessarily irreconcilable goals. In the end, it may turn out that in fact they are, but as a friend of mine used to say before he lost all his teeth in a fight, optimism is a beautiful thing.