Lisbon: Postcolonial Melancholy, Part 4

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I’ve called this short series about living in and learning about Portugal ‘Postcolonial Melancholy’, a phrase I borrowed from a book by Paul Gilroy. But that book isn’t actually about Portugal, it’s about the UK. Melancholy is partly in the eye of the beholder.

A couple of years after leaving Lisbon in 2004, I went on to do a Master’s in Portuguese Studies at King’s College, London and developed my understanding of the histories and cultures of Portugal, Brazil and Lusophone Africa. I also took the opportunity to learn more about cities in general. I didn’t know that much about Lisbon when I was there. I never really thought about its layout and the different stages in its history. I didn’t reflect on the different layers of the palimpsest. It was just Lisboa, the city I’d chosen to make home, and I saw it like a child would, without contemplating the distinctions between its elements. Looking back I reflected on the tensions between various kinds of old and various kinds of new: I thought about the ways in which new infrastructure, such as Oriente, Armazéns do Chiado and the Amoreiras shopping centre related to other areas like Alfama and Bairro Alto. I thought back to the recent and more established immigrants I’d made friends with, the new and old political parties, the values of the young and those of the old. Some things were in the process of dying away, some coming into existence. Very few things were fixed in stone.

I’ve reflected here on the role of the loss of empire in Portuguese culture. A few decades earlier, the UK had been through an even more extensive and thus more traumatic process, and it struck me as remarkable that, despite being raised and educated there, I’d rarely consciously reflected on its import.

I’d often remarked on the fact that when EFL teachers got together, one of the safest and most obvious topics of conversation while the ritual of getting slaughtered was being performed was television comedy. It was, along with music and The Guardian newspaper, after ten or so years of self-imposed exile from the UK, one of the things that kept me attached me to my culture. I’d tried to make my own country and myself foreign to one another. Having left straight after university I felt I didn’t know much about the country in which I’d been born and brought up, and in a sense I didn’t, but maybe at another level I didn’t know much about anything else.

Having abandoned my attempt to Be Portuguese, I went to live for a while in China and then in Spain, before returning to London in January 2006. It was a good thing that I left Lisbon when I did. Drinking-as-a-way-of-life is just not funny after a point. I left behind friends who either got married and developed roots or went mad and/or took drugs and died. I was lucky enough to get into a terrible relationship which led me to brief unhappiness thousands of miles away. In several ways it saved my life. In early 2010 I went to Coimbra to discuss doing a PhD there, and then spent a long weekend in Lisbon. I decided I didn’t want to go back. I recognised the mood, or at least the mood the place inspired in me. Having since been to Macau, Maputo and Havana I’ve sensed a similar atmosphere, a certain inertness, a sense of life adrift.

There’s an adage used in recovery circles that says ‘if you spot it, you’ve got it’. Although I learnt a lot about Portugal, it’s likely that a lot of what I perceived about its melancholy response to its diminished role in the world were projections of my own cultural background. After all, it barely needs stating that there’s a strain in British culture that looks back with nostalgia to the days of empire and war. Paul Gilroy points to the persistence of the football chant ‘Two world wars and one world cup’* to argue that “sport has the same value as war in the national circuitry”. In Summer 2006 the football world cup took place in Germany, and there was a debate about the role of the St George flag, about what and who it represented. Some (like Billy Bragg) argued that it was a symbol of a renewed and more inclusive national culture, one based on what (by extension) Paul Gilroy two years earlier had called ‘conviviality’, rather than on the reactionary racist values represented by the Union Jack, which in the UK has always been associated with the far-right. Bragg even went as far as publishing a book called ‘The Progressive Patriot’, in which he put together a personal panoply of heroes to argue there is a non-imperial popular identity to draw upon. He also released an album celebrating the mixture that is English identity today, with its mix of elements of folk culture (some of which originate overseas) with immigrant elements, some of which came to us with empire. Gilroy argues that The Streets represent something similar, which he calls ordinary demotic multiculturalism, vernacular dissidence.

The optimism embodied in such attempts is obviously laudable. It is an attempt to celebrate and promote (Gilroy again) “the building of a multicultural nationality that is no longer phobic about the prospect of exposure to either strangers or otherness”. The racist murder of the black teenager Steven Lawrence and the eventual inquiry’s revelation of the subsequent police cover-up had exposed a level of institutional and unconscious racism which came as a genuine shock to a population which had thought itself past all that. It was an important factor in making us reconsider our society and our responsibilities to one another. The mood was also partly due to our having a nominally progressive Government. In 2001 the then-Foreign Secretary announced that Chicken Tikka Masala was the country’s favourite dish, saying that it was “a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences”. It was partly an expression of aspiration but also reflected a certain inevitability given the reality of our lives. It was an image of ourselves we were happy with, one which was global and mobile rather than insular and fixed. People’s lives revolved around a rhythm of regular flights to foreign cities, choosing between a gamut of different cuisines, mixing with a wide range of people who just happened to have been born elsewhere. All of this was joyously represented in Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, with its radical take on British history centering on Windrush, the Suffragettes, the NHS, Ken Loach, The Tempest, and William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’.

How did we go so quickly from all that to Brexit? It may be that the expansive yet inclusive national culture celebrated by Boyle was too urban, too superficial, too dependent on consumerism, on investing in an image of ourselves. Perhaps the shame of renewed imperial adventuring meant that it could only go so deep. Maybe further down there was a swell of hollow pride that our lads were off savaging the natives again, encapsulated in The Sun’s obnoxious but (in some parts of society) ubiquitous ‘Help for Heroes’ campaign. In any case there were other forces pushing back. It was easy to laugh when the pitifully Blimpish Ukip MEP Geoffrey Bloom railed against foreign aid going to ‘Bongo Bongo land’, but harder to do so when various members of the public were filmed abusing perceived outsiders on public transport. Such outbursts often had a bitter, recriminatory tone: ‘My Britain’s fuck all now’, bewailed the woman on the Croydon tram. The targets of this kind of abuse were often more recent immigrants bearing the brunt of buried resentment. As Gilroy wrote, “incomers may be unwanted and feared because they are the unwitting bearers of the imperial and colonial past”.

It’s easy to overlook the role that mainstream TV still plays in British life in framing social attitudes, in creating a picture of the society that it’s hard to shut out. The national mood was soured by hateful propaganda scapegoating the unemployed and spreading the virus of negative empathy. The active celebration of bullying by programmes such as ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ and ‘The Apprentice’, with psychopathic character traits openly lauded, alomg with other shows on which everything from hosting a dinner party to making a cake is a competition for attention, can only have further frayed the national fabric. Meanwhile, ‘Downton Abbey’ promoted the most reactionary imaginable vision of the purported benefits of strict social hierarchy. Plus, in the background, sadistic cuts in the name of austerity did their dirty work of making everyone that bit more scared and unhappy.

Those who austerity hasn’t touched, who have so far remained immune to the pressures it creates, are often oblivious to this resentful mood. The speed with which commentators swept the causes of the 2011 riots under the carpet was breathtaking. Within a few months, the whole issue had become more or less taboo, and by the election of 2015 it was simply never mentioned. After the Brexit vote I briefly became part of Facebook groups made up of people outraged at what had happened. Some seemed to believe that it was the only bad thing that had ever occurred, and that if the decision could be reversed everything would go back to being perfect. There was a tenor to a lot of the comments to the effect that the underclass that has always been small-minded and racist. An extremely cogent and trenchant speech by the Guardian journalist John Harris came as a salutary corrective to this. Late last year, watching Ken Loach’s heartbreaking and bloodboiling excoriation of the effects of benefits cuts, I wondered: which way would Daniel Blake have voted? Although I was out of the country for the duration of the campaign, I suspect I would have been hard-pressed to argue face-to-face that anyone dealing with the hard edge of government cruelty should vote for the status quo.   

So here we are on the other side of the looking glass, staring ‘hard Brexit’ in the face. We don’t know exactly what lies ahead, but we know with all certainty that it will be very miserable indeed. For (and partly because of) all its bravado, inertia is the future of the UK. The very worst elements of British society, the scum of ages, are in charge, and they have nothing to offer except a puerile and obnoxious nostalgia. Last summer during the Brazil Olympics, a Tory MP tweeted a map showing how many medals the ‘British Empire’ had won. The response to every issue, from vegetable shortages to floods, is framed in xenophobic terms. Theresa May, for all the vapid progressive sentiment of her maiden speech as leader, soon fell into line with the likes of Le Pen, with her sneering at rootless elites. The hint of antisemitism, never far from the surface in patrician British elite discourse, was not accidental.

All this posturing, like the chant of ‘two world wars and one world cup’, covers a deeper sadness, staves off the melancholy which, as Freud says, results from an inability to mourn. The alternative would involve the painful process of coming to terms with the loss of something we should never have had in the first place, but also wouldn’t exist without.

I did a Master’s in Portuguese history but not one in my own. Learning about Portugal and Brazil was, I now realise, a way of learning about my own history, culture and identity. At a national level that history is blood-soaked and shameful. Reading John Newsinger’s ‘The blood never dried’ made me aware of how little I know about the barbaric recent history of my own country. I’ve also slowly become aware of the extent to which my professional field (teaching English abroad) contains powerful echoes of colonial administration. We laugh and drink away our guilt and find subtle ways to sneer at other country’s histories and cultures, seeking to escape from the irreversible fact that “the carnival of Britain’s imperial potency is now over forever”. We use satire as a form of deference, a means of disavowing our responsibilities to take our past and our selves more seriously**. While the British love to joke about the Germans’ excuse for the Third Reich (‘I was only following orders’), our ubiquitous get-out clause with regard to our own misdemeanours is ‘I was only having a laugh’. Alternatively, we drink away our guilt, and find it puzzling that few other cultures share our addiction to oblivion. A book simply called ‘Why do the British drink so much?’ would be an international best-seller. Part of the answer is that we are seeking that “manic elation” which combines with “misery, self-loathing and ambivalence” to produce this sense of postcolonial melancholy. For me, writing about my relationship with Portugal has been a means of reflecting on where I stand in relation to my own country’s past and present. In the words of Paul Gilroy:

melancholic reactions are prompted by “the loss of a fantasy of omnipotence” and suggest that the racial and national fantasies that imperial and colonial power required were…predominantly narcissistic. From this perspective, before the British people can adjust to the horrors of their own modern history and start to build a new national identity from the debris of their broken narcissism, they will have to learn to appreciate the brutalities of colonial rule enacted in their name and to their benefit, to understand the damage it did to their political culture at home and abroad, and to consider the extent to which their country’s complex investments in ethnic absolutism sustained it.

In my obsession with identity I know I tend to fixate on national identity. Ultimately nobody is ‘just’ British or Portuguese. Being an immigrant is never as simple as ‘fitting in’, as simply becoming like ‘any’ local. Where does one insert oneself? What sort of local does one become? Where in the new society can one find a niche, or escape from the one that has been pre-allocated? One of the joys of being a foreigner is that you can play with identity, experiment with your and others’ perceptions of who you are. There is inevitably  more space for individual flamboyance. In the words of Fernando Pessoa, we are an empty stage on which various characters play out their roles. Not having a script, struggling to follow and participate in basic routines of social interaction, is at once troubling and liberating. Some markers of identity are subjective, others objective, assigned by others. Moving to another country involves not just geographic adjustment, but also a social relocation. Defining oneself as an ‘expat’ is one way of dealing with this, by seeking to limit one’s commitment to finding a place in the new environment. Doing so often locates you within a social stratum which aspires to be from elsewhere and disavows its own background. One common theme I’ve recognised across the countries I’ve lived in (and am increasingly aware exists in my own) is: blaming the ‘common people’ for whatever you find embarrassing or painful about your own country. Across all countries there is a lazy and parasitical elite which bemoans its misfortune at being from that country and bullies ‘o povo’ (Portuguese for the ordinary people) for their supposed indolence, blaming the poor for the backwardness of the country. This attitude I’ve encountered among Portuguese betinhos, Spanish pijos, Mexican fresas and mireyes, Italian fighetti, Brazilian mauricinhos and patricinhas. In Mexico they talk about ‘gringos nacidos en México’ – people who just happen to have been born in Mexico, but who like to think of themselves as being from somewhere more sophisticated. It would be wrong to put this snobbishness down to a national characteristic, because I hate it when people do that to me.

While in London I kept up with Portugal a bit through my Portuguese flatmate and occasional contact with friends still there, but gradually, inevitably drifted away. I was vaguely aware of new artists, writers, and trends, and also of more established ones I failed to engage with while I was there: Boss AC, Gonçalo M. Tavares and Joana Vasconcelos, for example. I didn’t follow up my interest in hiphop, fado and the myriad new hybrid forms of music, new identities based on shaking off the past, acknowledging its history without glorifying it, integrating other colonial and postcolonial experiences, and thereby producing “a new image of the country that can accommodate its colonial dimensions”. Despite its ongoing battering by austerity and its corrupt political elite, Portugal has very great advantages over the UK. The radical left is far more dynamic and cohesive than its UK equivalent: articulate, responsive, and smart. Portugal also has (unless things have changed very recently) no far-right nationalist movement to speak of. I suspect (but don’t know) that the national mood is, although depressed, a lot less resentful than the atmosphere in the UK and in Italy (where I live now).

I have an enormous affection for Portugal and its people. I feel grateful for what it taught me. So much of what applies to Portugal and the Portuguese also applies to me and to my own culture. It taught me a huge amount about myself, the world and the relation between the two. It helped me understand Brazil and Mexico. Certain dynamics are common to all societies and it’s thanks to Portugal and the Portuguese that I was able to learn about them. Getting older involves realising that one is part of history and may fall victim to it. Since 1999, when I first set foot in the country, we’ve seen the rise and fall of the euro, the spreading of globalisation and of challenges to its dominance, the increasing rule of the internet, Brexit, the shift into a whole new anthropogenic age…I know now what it feels like to be part of a generation. I wish I’d stayed in contact more with the people who shared that part of my life, and feel a certain sorrow that I didn’t. That’s saudade, I think.  

* Gilroy’s previous book was the classic about Black British identity, ‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack’.

** On this theme Jonathan Coe’s review of a biography of Boris Johnson is an absolute must-read.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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