Bodies wrapped in black shiny fabric crawled or were pulled out of the sea; yellow and green-painted bodies in torn clothing and gasmasks staggered between people reclining on sunbeds. Ilha de Tavira was the scene of Saturday’s art attack, highlighting the perils to humanity of the proposed extraction of oil and gas from land and sea. For the crowds of holidaying beachgoers this distraction from the work of sunbathing was entertaining, puzzling or, in a few cases, alarming. I’m sure I’d have been horrified if I hadn’t known what was going on, but then I am a cautious type, which was possibly why I landed the role of ‘preparation of the site for the human slogan’. The sensible decision was taken to keep the slogan short, and in English, since the equivalent in Portuguese would have been twice as long. It was to declare: NO OIL NO GAS.
I bore the responsibility for this small task very heavily. First I researched online the making of letters with the human body. The more professional versions not only made athletic demands of the participants but also, for some letters, looked more fitting for the wall of an Indian temple. I found what I thought were the more feasible ones and set about creating a how-to sheet for the gutsy volunteers. My main task, however, was to mark out the site, so I mentally roughed out a size – 2 by 15 metres would do it, I thought – then cut canes into short lengths and tied them together at the right intervals with string.
I was assisted in this by a visiting friend. Some ten weeks earlier she had broken both legs when her large and boisterous dog had miscalculated an affectionate greeting and bowled her over at about 30mph. She was by now in leg braces with a crutch, but still managed the trip from London to the Algarve. Let’s call her the Hobbler.
We took the ferry to the beach. The Hobbler managed to get on and off the wobbly boat. I was carrying the canes, a heavy rope to form a baseline, and a device for smoothing out the sand. At the entrance to the line of cafes and bars we bumped into A, one of the organisers.
‘The beach is crowded. You’ll have to manage the people there,’ she said lightly.
The Hobbler and I made our way slowly to the site of the action. The agreed spot was hard to find. Husband had to be called from his other responsibilities to get me to the right location. It was a blazing afternoon and the sand was difficult to walk on for the Hobbler.
I managed to find an area that, although obstructing many people’s route to the sea, didn’t actually require my asking anyone to move. I set out the canes, driving them in with my palm. The Hobbler helped where she could, moving around the area on her backside. My sand-smoothing device was a children’s plastic toy rake; I hadn’t been capable of carrying anything larger. It soon broke. The heat was intense. Tears of sweat ran into my eyes. Using a piece of cane like a rolling pin, I made out the letters in the sand. Beach-users were puzzled but fairly unimpressed. Both the Hobbler and I were beginning to feel quite wretched, albeit for different reasons.
Then the bodies started to arrive by sea and across the sands, and the crowds gathered. Photographers came and people grabbed their mobile phones to record the event. Actor-bodyguards pulled bodies from the waves and assisted the poisoned. As the bodies staggered over towards me, Husband – by now at my side having completed duties elsewhere – whipped away the canes. The bodies threw themselves into their well-rehearsed shapes, a photographic drone moving overhead. They held the letter shapes for a while then arose, gathered banners and formed a chanting semi-circle in the sand. They went on to perform other art attacks on the lagoon side of the beach island, culminating in swimming out to board a solar-powered boat, dismantling a make-believe oil rig on it and covering the deck in banners.
The ‘bodies’, all those uninhibited members of Tavira em Transição, were amazing. And the protests are gaining ground all the time. After Galp/ENI’s indefinite postponement of their drilling plans came the news this week that Repsol Partex were ‘indefinitely postponing’ their October plans too. They have the concession to drill in the sea off the Tavira/Faro coast.
But they also serve who only kneel in the blistering sand for an hour raking smooth an area of 30 square metres using nothing but a broken piece of plastic little bigger than a human hand. Afterwards I found that I had burnt both knees and taken a patch of skin off my right palm. O, the mortifications of that day.
We needed peace and quiet on Sunday. On the veranda I stooped to pick up a fallen hibiscus flower. Behind it was something mouldy-looking. I got closer. It was a baby bird, grey down waving above its incomplete flight feathers. A baby Red-rumped Swallow, fallen from the nest. Such consternation! Do we leave it, or feed it, or try to get it back in the nest? Swallows aren’t ground-dwelling birds. It wasn’t hopping about at the start of life, its anxious parents hovering nearby. Its parents were nearby but unconcerned. They had other chicks. They might even have chucked this one out as superfluous or inadequate. It did look a bit wonky, but then it had fallen from a height. The parents certainly weren’t wasting any resources over it now.
We dripped water on to its beak from a pipette. We caught insects and tried to get it to feed on them; it kept its mouth closed and shuffled into as inconspicuous position as it could find.
That night we drove out to a restaurant but our bird trials were not over. As we arrived in the almost full car park, I saw a rather odd-looking bird mascot on the grille of a Peugeot. It was quite realistic. No, wait, it was real. It was what was left of a dead bird. No, hang on, it was alive. It was the head and breast of a panting and panicking bird. Hobbler and I got out of the car while Husband went to find a space to park. We poked around in the radiator grille and got pecked at. Nothing wrong with the bird’s neck or beak then. To get it out without being savaged, we needed a tool. Hobbler withdrew a pen from her bag. I pushed the fingers of my left hand into the grille. I located a claw, which found purchase on my hand. I could feel the bird push its leg against me. On the other side, I wormed the pen in along the bird’s back. I gently pulled, the bird pushed, and it burst out of captivity and flew unevenly across the car park. It had managed deftly, ungratefully, to stab me as it escaped. I don’t know if it had a bright future or was going to be an easy meal. Either way, it had to be better than a slow death in the grille of a Peugeot.
Our fallen bird at home was still alive that night, and the following day. It shook barely perceptibly and made feeble noises when it could hear its clutch-mates calling to their parents. It was breaking our hearts.
Monday night was a thunderstorm and heavy rain. In the morning, the bird was gone. It had been assumed* into heaven by some agency, perhaps Little Owl.
*This is for the Catholics.