Monday 16 December 2019

Country Matters: Martin, a saint of the sunshine

Blackbirds
Blackbirds

Joe Kennedy

NUMBERS of Irish escapees from the weather and other matters know what it's like in the early mornings on the southern shores of the Iberian peninsula.

The temperatures are pleasant, and the crag martins, which live in clusters in their monastery cells on the sea cliffs, are flitting to-and-fro in the legoland of high-rise apartment buildings hunting flies.

The early sun lights up the concrete of faded yellows and creams as the shadows gradually retreat. Warmth creeps on to balconies and those within make plans for another day in the sunshine.

Seagulls are aloft on a swooping search knowing that easy food will soon be available, alerted by the creak of sliding glass doors that bread from a previous day will be broken and cast out to swirl down towards car roofs and shrubbery and be grabbed by jousting acrobats before hitting the dusty ground, now temporarily firmed by an overnight downpour.

Whatever the weather in northern Europe, in more southern latitudes the sunshine and balm of days is still a sword of summer shimmering in November. For a time anyway.

This may be called 'St Martin's summer', a period of grace before the giving up to autumn. A saintly soldier is remembered in legend for a sunshine miracle when he dismounted from his horse to divide his cloak with a roadside beggar. Suddenly the land was bathed in warmth. Local festivals remember the miracle.

Butterflies flutter, blackbirds call and the mute white storks have not all departed for Africa. They clap their beaks to communicate in a sound like soccer supporters' rattles of another era, as they stand on their great nests of sticks on the tops of disused red-brick factory chimneys - left so by council decree for the birds' welfare - all that remains of demolished industrial units.

The storks are thriving. There is reckoned to be more than a 50pc increase in numbers in the past decade. This is because of more food waste and a 'plague' of crayfish. A census shows that in Portugal, between March and June, more than 11,000 storks' nests were counted; there were 4,000 fewer 10 years ago.

Along the narrow streets beneath the high-rises mobile phone tones make clear sounds coming from a pan-pipe blower as he pushes his laden bicycle along. This is a one-man wheelie workshop of a knife-grinder announcing his presence to those who live many storeys above.

He gets some business as women gradually appear at ground floor level holding their kitchen ware for sharpening. Having completed his honing tasks, the knife-man moves along, pushing his bicycle, blowing his pipes.

On a town street an old man sells hot sweet chestnuts from a mobile charcoal-fuelled brazier drawn there by an ancient motorcycle combination.

He is another herald of autumn and regular customers stop by for a chat and a tasty snack in a brown paper bag for two euro.

His equipment might not pass health and safety regulators but he remains in business, as does a fisherman who offers clams from a dripping sack jammed in the frame of his bicycle.

Nothing looks fresher. And soon enough he sells his catch of the day measured out by the tinful.

Sunday Independent

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