April fools – message in a bottle or living outside the box

“There must be some kind of way outta here, said the joker to the thief” – Jimmy Hendrix

April the First – ‘dia das mentiras’ or day of lies, as it’s known in Portugal – is supposed to be the one time of the year when we are allowed to try to kid each other, play pranks and practical jokes for laughs.

Just over a year into the previously unimagined repercussions of a pandemic, however, and impatiently readying to emerge from yet another prolonged period of home confinement, mankind has had just about enough of all too life-like hoaxes. In short, it’s just not funny anymore.

Different countries normally indulge in slight variations of April Fools, with France and Italy particularly fond of sneakily sticking a paper fish to someone’s back while the Polish warning “Prima Aprilis, uważaj, bo się pomylisz!” translates to “April Fools’ Day, be careful, you can be wrong!”

In Sweden, if you are successful at tricking someone, instead of screaming “April fools!”, you’d shout the phrase “April, April, din dumma sill, jag kan lura dig vart jag vill!” before running away. This means “you stupid herring, I can trick you wherever I want!”, something we might adapt to ‘bacalhau’ hereabouts.

I’m not so sure about the Irish custom of driving on the wrong side of the road, Greek beliefs around April Fools’ pranks, the first being that if you can trick someone, you’ll have good luck all year long, the other that successful tricksters will enjoy a good year of crops and that the water from rainfall on April 1 has healing abilities, being somewhat more beneficial to my mind.

Whichever the tradition of your preference, 2021, as it has been to date, does not inspire, and I for one won’t be leading my mother, or anyone else for that matter, up the garden path as I would usually delight in doing.

Which reminds me … around this time 12 months ago, my mother of almost 58 years, in her customary disingenuous manner, asked me if I had any regrets in life. Normally, being a very private person, I would (and did) shrug such intimate enquiries off with a laugh.

However, given our state of intermittent and seemingly interminable confinement, there has been plenty of opportunity for reflection ahead of a likely-looking imminent release back into the general population, allowing for a considered response to the question posed above.

Graham Greene, George Orwell, Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway have been four of my favourite authors for as long as I can remember, and such an affinity to their characters, indirectly reflected in the leading male protagonists of their collective writings, must inevitably shed some light on my own.

Much as Greene was torn between religion and lust, permanently stuck half-way between a monastery and a brothel, my earliest compromise was reached at the tender age of 14 when attending confirmation classes, partly motivated by the insatiable quest for knowledge, more concretely persuaded by the presence of an alluring female fellow student from the school next door and the parental promise of a racing bicycle upon successful completion – needless to say, I got the bike but not the girl.

My otherwise far-from-conventional middle-class upbringing introduced me to ‘the pub’ soon after (I was always tall for my age and I.D. cards were unheard of) together with all the previously only dreamt of hedonistic pleasures which have made life more bearable ever since – alcohol, nicotine, a game or two of pool and an unquenchable fascination with the opposite sex.

Obsession, passion and addiction, in whatever order or sphere, are inevitably rewarded with great successes whilst simultaneously preparing the pitfalls of even greater disasters as one inches closer to discovering the real ‘Heart of the Matter’, the meaning of life and death, understanding and acceptance, sin, punishment and ultimately redemption.

The ‘Power and the Glory’ are never far away from abject failure and the prosaic reality of mere existence. I have spent money like confetti more often than I care to remember, given television interviews, only to watch that image crumble in sardonic amusement, subsequently seeing out my days, if not weeks, in a warm public library whilst subsisting on weak mugs of coffee and stale bread in a run-down bed sit.

Parts of my life have played out like a surreal film, an unstoppable rollercoaster suspended between boredom and euphoria, irritability, playfulness, flawed reality and perfect imperfection. Life is made up of trial and error, hopefully a learning curve punctuated by poignant confessions, mostly when alone, which will eventually lead to a better and more healthy state of mind and therefore being – something I discovered here in the Algarve some 24 years ago. Writing then became a form of therapy, an escape from melancholia and the foundation of a brighter, more positive future.

Not unlike Greene’s troubled ‘whiskey priest’ constantly at odds with human frailty and his own demons, I despise both false piety and sanitised religion. I am a believer in the greater good, perhaps of the agnostic kind, nothing is black and white, there are no saints and sinners, only flawed, ordinary human beings engaging in the daily struggle that we call life on earth.

Hemingway’s demons were love, struggle, wilderness – imagined and real – as well as loss, while Orwell dedicated himself to challenging the status quo in defence of common sense and the common man.

Introduce Fitzgerald’s hopeless romanticism, critical decadence and ultimate disillusion into the mix and you may gain an insight into the conflicting emotions which have haunted, challenged my past raison d’être.

They say human misery peaks at the age of 47, ‘Weltschmerz’ – ‘saudade’ in Portuguese – a weariness of life and its absurdities setting in, leading up to the realisation that reserves of time and energy left to achieve your dreams are on the wane.

Researchers point out that our ‘get-up-and-go’ continues to take a nosedive into the mid 50s as we spend more and more time dwelling on past failures, what might have been had we chosen a different career path, not split up with that first love, travelled more extensively. Would we be happier or better off had we taken more risks?

To my mind, hindsight is a two-edged sword and most of these so-called scientific studies merely provide ‘social scientists’ with an end to a means. We humans are such complex beings and self doubts can set in at any time, be it during our teens, thirties, whenever.

It is interesting that the majority of Nobel Prize winners reach the peak of their abilities at the age of 57, and the fact that I will hit 58 in two weeks’ time does not bother me in the slightest.

The realisation that nothing matters very much and very little matters at all dawned on me several decades ago: the difference today is that I also know that a few things have always mattered very much, and that it only took time, that learning curve, to find them.

Do I have any regrets? Absolutely not. Do I need to go out more? Definitely – we were never meant to be hermits. With that in mind, April 5, 19 and May 3 are important dates in my social diary. Carpe diem!

By Skip Bandele
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Skip Bandele moved to the Algarve 20 years ago and has been with the Algarve Resident since 2003. His writing reflects views and opinions formed while living in Africa, Germany and England as well as Portugal.