The good old days
As my 59th (!) birthday approaches (I don’t feel a day over 29 and a half) and I find myself in the 26th year here in the Algarve, I cannot help but wonder at how quickly time flies by. At the risk of sounding like one of those old fogeys we used to laugh at, here is a look back at how I perceive the changes in my life, which I wouldn’t think are a million miles removed from what many of you have experienced in one way or another.
It seems like only yesterday that some of my earliest memories centre around being on the constant lookout for a suitable stick – I still like a good bit of stick – to accompany me on my inquisitive four-year-old’s almost daily expeditions, exploring mysterious woodlands on the periphery of suburban Hanover.
Fear never was a factor in the mid-1960s, although the instinctive need to be ‘armed’, and my young mother’s constant worries, might say otherwise. That sense of adventure has never really left me, although a healthy degree of caution, which always played an instinctive part, certainly helped me emerge mostly unscathed.
By the age of six, I found myself in Ghana – obviously not by my own choosing – and life took on a more mollycoddled nature as dictated by the circumstances surrounding the daily routine of an expatriate family in West Africa during the early 1970s – school runs, beach or swimming pool after lunch, followed by late-afternoon visits to the Accra Lawn Tennis Club interspersed by shopping trips, icy milk shakes and the occasional birthday party.
Even a military coup during that time only resulting in a day off school before normal life resumed was less exciting than watching the 1972 Munich Olympics flickering by on a neighbour’s small black and white television.
That sedate scenario changed dramatically upon our return to Europe, first Hamburg and then London, my father and I forming the advanced party by means of the Harwich car ferry – enduring gale force ten storms during the passage – before my mother and sister followed.
1974 was spent at the German school in Petersham while learning English at our first home in East Twickenham before the switch to Hampton (Grammar) School followed the next year.
At the same time, we moved house to East Sheen and the framework for my teenage growing pains and young adulthood in the capital and beyond, which was to last until 1997, had been established.
I started my first of three paper rounds at 12 and earned 97.5 pence an hour stocking shelves at weekends in Waitrose two years later. Three buses were needed to get to school before a proper bicycle – the reward for submitting to the rigours of confirmation – laden with heavy panniers got me through 12 miles of heavy morning traffic every day thereafter.
I’d joined our school scout troop and many hours at dusk were spent knocking on doors doing bob-a-jobs – my worst mistake was failing to recognise what looked to be a pink mansion for a children’s home and ending up polishing close to 50 pairs of very scuffed and dirty shoes, or collecting signatures for a sponsored swim in aid of the Spastics Society – I managed 100 lengths at Putney pool and still have the ‘thank you’ letter!
Meanwhile, the ongoing spiralling inflation, soaring energy prices, queues for everything from bread to petrol or looming nuclear war with the Soviets (remind you of anything?) hardly touched us as our remaining spare time was filled with fun and games at the Marble Hill adventure playground, Richmond Park skateboarding, catching the ground keeper in a compromising position with a young blonde while pretending to be private detectives or enjoying the thrills of the funfair at Chessington Zoo.
Later, now 16, girls and alcohol entered our lives, and parties and pubs became the focus of almost all extracurricular activity. Except for the summer holidays. For some (to me now) inexplicable reason, my parents allowed my best friend and I to go Interrailing at such a tender age and the Greek Islands, via Brindisi and later the South of France, became our annual Mecca.
This experience proved to be liberating (mostly from my all-boys school) and the perfect preparation for the four years of heavy drinking whilst getting even better acquainted with the fairer sex which were to follow, also known as university, and getting a certificate to say you successfully survived it all – in my case entitled a very apt ‘International Relations’.
That particular time of freedom, 1981-85, was also marked by a degree of another type of social engagement, chairing an amongst other causes pro Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid, anti-fascist on- campus organisation called the ‘Peace Umbrella’. Although well-meaning in terms of the number of trendy badges we sold in the Student’s Union concourse, our commitment extended to taking advantage of the free buses laid on from Stoke-on-Trent – the location of my ‘holiday camp’ – in order to attend a 100,000-strong CND rally in London but did not stretch as far as getting drenched for three hours, the afternoon being spent in the cinema instead.
Released into the free-for-all real world of the Thatcherite mid-eighties – which coincided with my first visit to the Algarve, by the way, but more of that later – I was now perfectly qualified to enter the business of advising complete strangers on how best to invest their hard-earned cash, prepare for retirement, buy a house and generally insure their lives.
However, the Financial Services Act soon put an end to that happy-go-lucky, get-rich-quick buccaneering lifestyle of a licenced freebooter, and I was forced to switch horses in favour of the much better respected betting industry.
Again, my early ‘training’ stood me in good stead, and I made rapid progress through the ranks until offered an opportunity to escape the increasingly taxing London merry-go-round. A top job heading up my present company’s premier outlet in Berlin beckoned, and I grasped the new challenge with both hands, little knowing that the seedy underbelly of unified Germany’s new capital city would soon suck the very life out of me.
Fortunately, I got out just in time. One wintry November morning, I packed as many of my belongings as I could carry and caught a train from Bahnhof Zoo heading west, stepping off the bus from Lisbon to Portimão 48 hours later and into a new life – the rest is history, as they say.
The Praia da Rocha I so fondly remembered from my holidays there during the ‘80s had sadly already changed completely. Instead of the friendly “hellos” or handshakes from acquaintances on the way to the morning bica, one was now pursued by shady characters whispering, “you want some hash”. The idyllic village atmosphere of not so long ago had been replaced by gaudy neon signs as my favourites of maybe half-a-dozen haunts had transformed into the Portuguese equivalent of Torremolinos.
And things have gone from bad to worse since, an increasing police presence at weekends and during the summer even being supplemented by CCTV street cameras this year. Luckily, back then, I recalled many past outings on a hired motorbike exploring, one of which led me to follow a random sandy lane full of potholes, eventually gently dropping down into a sleepy hamlet, which appeared to be on the brink of awakening – Alvor. It is here that I have been ever since and still am, close to three decades later.
The village has changed visibly and grown outwardly, but managed to retain its friendly charm, a place where everyone still knows your name.
I am happy and content here and can only laugh, with the occasional nostalgic tear in my eye, when I read English newspaper headlines such as ‘Somali mothers send teens back to war-torn Africa to escape rising knife crime’ or ‘Wokest pub in Britain bans top brands over ethical concerns’. And that is just the tip of the iceberg, no pun intended. Sorry Greta Thunberg et al, I have grown older, and maybe just a little wiser, but I have not lost the plot.
By Skip Bandele
Skip Bandele escaped to the Algarve almost 25 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.