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. The UK fifty years earlier went 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 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 two world cups’* 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 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, and 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 happened, 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? I would have been hard-pressed to argue 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 that my professional field (teaching English abroad) contains powerful echoes of colonial administration. We laugh and drink away our colonial 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’), the ubiquitous get-out clause for us with regard to our own misdemeanours is ‘I was only having a laugh’. Or we drink away our guilt, finding 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 the ethnic absolutism that 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 elsewhere. 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

Lisbon: Postcolonial Melancholy, Part 3

Fotografia Lisboa  Prelúdio para o pôr do sol

Part 1

Part 2

You hear it in the music, the films, the novels and the poetry: Portuguese culture is suffused with melancholy. In the early 2000s the most popular foreign groups were those whose music was steeped in the same yearning and languor: Lamb, Tindersticks, Gotan Project, Mogwai. The measured pace and sometimes sombre atmosphere led me to develop a wacky theory according to which there is a global pattern of large, exuberant countries neighboured by smaller ones where life is less frantic and more given over to reflection: Mexico, Portugal, Argentina, New Zealand, Ireland… Although the theory is in many important ways nonsense, the role of rancheras and tango in two of those cultures does lend it some credence. One of Portugal’s most popular songs of 2001 was a version of Erasure’s bouncy/sad disco anthem ‘A Little Respect’ which had been slowed down to bring out the tragic element (and, in the process, make it a lot less fun to listen to). Portuguese music had something of the drowsiness of bossa nova, but I didn’t detect the same sensuality. Fado seemed to encapsulate a mood of being ‘half in love with easeful death’. Lisbon even had its daily ritual of mourning the passing of the day, toasting the lusco fusco at Miradouro Santa Catarina.

To get inside Lisbon it helps to read at least some of Fernando Pessoa’s ‘Book of Disquiet’, a collection of prose texts assembled after his death and all written under the name of Bernardo Soares, whose lifestyle and outlook seems to have matched Pessoa’s almost exactly.  In it he writes:

“I love the stillness of early summer evenings downtown, and especially the stillness made more still by contrast, on the streets that seethe with activity by day. Rua do Arsenal, Rua da Alfândega, the sad streets extending eastward from where the Rua da Alfândega ends, the entire stretch along the quiet docks – all of this comforts me with sadness when on these evenings I enter the solitude of their ensemble. I slip into an era prior to the one I’m living in.”

Pessoa spent the ages of seven to seventeen in South Africa but after he came to Lisbon he rarely left. His was an exile of the imagination. He invented heteronyms, characters with fully-developed biographies in whose names he wrote, and some of whom, like Álvaro de Campos, travelled for him. It’s possible that he made a physical visit to Porto, where rumours suggest that he may have been caught on film by the local director Manoel de Oliveira. De Oliveira, who died last year at the age of 106, made his first full-length film in 1942 (‘Aniki Bóbó’); it featured children singing and dancing. His subsequent works slowed down until they became almost inert, like a series of sumptuously detailed paintings. I once fell asleep watching his historical ‘drama’ ‘Palavra e Utopia’ at a point where a shot of an oak tree in a breeze was being accompanied by two voices softly discussing theology. When I woke up sometime later neither the shot nor the topic of conversation had changed. His later films were feted internationally, particularly the comedy ‘I’m Going Home’, which starred John Malkovich, and his very last film, which he made at the age of 104. It was called ‘The Old Man of Restelo’ (that eternal Cassandra of Portuguese imperial expansion, as mentioned in Part 2), and consists mostly of a dialogue between four of the greatest writers in Portuguese and Spanish history (Camões, Castelo Branco, a poet I’d never heard of called Teixeira de Pascoaes and Cervantes) about “the glories of the past and the uncertainty of the future”. 

Another idiosyncratic local filmmaker was João César Monteiro, who in his films often went by the name John of God. I myself took part in Portuguese cinema history when I went to ‘see’ his version of ‘Snow White’, which on a visual level consisted almost exclusively of a blank grey screen. In doing so I was one of only seven people who saw it on its opening weekend. More recently the King of Almost-Unwatchable Portuguese Cinema is Pedro Costa, whose visually luscious and very lengthy films typically consist of static shots of Cabo Verdean immigrants standing in empty museums looking extremely sad, interspersed with twenty-minute long takes of heroin addicts coughing in dust-filled rooms in crumbling parts of Lisbon. They are very beautiful to watch and have lots to teach us about post-colonial entropy, but they are nevertheless nearly impossible to stay awake to. They put me in mind of Shashi Tharoor’s comment about India being “a highly developed society in an advanced state of decay”.

The younger people I taught were nevertheless very dynamic: highly-educated, socially liberal and often startlingly witty. They were some of the most intelligent and imaginative teenagers I’ve ever met. In my mind now, fifteen or so years later, I can’t help but compare and contrast their fate with that of those former emigrants I hung out with in Jaana’s café, who had had for the most part a miserable education. As we become older our place in history becomes more clearly defined. In their case that meant being forced to kill and risk their own lives in a war they didn’t believe in, and then driven by a lack of opportunities for mobility in their own country to seek work elsewhere. Then came the Revolution, ascent to the EU, the circenses of the 1998 Expo and the 2004 Euro Cup, followed swiftly by the crisis of the EU and brutal austerity programmes jeopardising the life chances of their children and grandchildren. It’s hard not to see them as victims of history.

As Paul Theroux pointed out in relation to travel writing, it’s never fair to judge another country when you visited it in a bad mood. In my case, I stayed too long in Portugal, started to feel stuck, and blamed my frustration on the world around me. I was irritated by what I saw then as the alternating self-aggrandisement and self-abnegation of the Portuguese, particularly how these feelings were projected onto the national sport. I came to hate both the sound of Portuguese people speaking English and other foreigners speaking Portuguese. I got annoyed when there was a word in the newspaper I hadn’t encountered before, and if anyone local who I didn’t know spoke to me in English I’d cut them dead. But I couldn’t leave, I reasoned, because I had a permanent job, a fridge, and a cat. In any case the rhythms of my life had become like the lulling sounds of a train track: trips to the Algarve and to Spain, drinks every night in the Bela Ipanema café, hearty portions of comfort food and elephantine servings of Amêndoa Amarga, trips to the beach, falling out and patching up with friends, visitors coming and going, relationships starting and ending, new teachers arriving every September… I fantasised about going to Spain or Brazil but knew I never could put myself back on the map of my own accord, despite my vague 5am notions that one day I could do a Master’s and restart my life. And all the time I was trying hard not to spend too much time wondering how my life would have turned out had I stayed in the UK twelve years earlier.

I think I hit a wall around the time a Portuguese friend of mine went on a spectacular late-night rant about “these fucking English teachers with their drinking, their whining about the society they’ve chosen to make home, their sense of entitlement and their shitty lessons which they don’t even prepare for or care about”. Sabia que tinha razão: I knew he had a point . In June 2004 I went into a massive sulk when my “beloved” Spain were defeated by my host country at football. In the end it was one of those new teachers who uprooted me, a violent process which involved moving on from those habits and friends which had sustained my single life.

A couple of years later I came across a song by Transglobal Underground (‘Drinking in Gomorrah’ – see playlist below) which summed up perfectly that particular fate I’d narrowly escaped: being Lost in TEFL.  For years I blamed the place but knew deep down the problem was really me in that place. Part of the sadness, frustration and regret I was seeing everywhere around me was my own, and a lot of the arrogance and self-abasement I attributed to the Portuguese was really aspects of my own personality and culture which I was projecting elsewhere. As psychologists like to point out, if you can spot it, you’ve got it. Ainda bem that I left, for me and for Portugal. It really wasn’t working out for us any more, but, as so often – at least in the sometimes melancholy world of Teaching English Abroad – the problem wasn’t them, it was me.

Part 4

Lisbon: Postcolonial Melancholy, Part 2

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Please read Part 1 first.

Living in Lisbon I sometimes felt a bit like I’d fallen off the map. On Sunday afternoons in particular the city seemed to be not just sleepy but fast asleep. The atmosphere occasionally put me in mind of Ricardo Reis returning from Brazil to live out his final days in his desolate and listless hometown in José Saramago’s aptly-titled novel ‘The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis’. I also recognised it from the work of Fernando Pessoa himself, in particular his ‘Book of Disquiet’, a part-autobiography of a faceless clerk revelling in his dull quotidian existence, one sweetened by intense daydreaming and a rapt attention to poetic possibility. Around this time I also read Requiem by Antonio Tabucchi, which is similar to the Saramago novel in that it depicts a character drifting round an empty Lisbon on an eternal Sunday afternoon waiting for an appointment with the ghost of Pessoa. I had known about the Portuguese gift for melancholy and fatalism, especially having lived for a year in the cradle of Portuguese nationhood, and had also read an enchanting article on the subject by John Berger (RIP) in The Guardian while working in Dublin in the summer. It was by no means always unpleasant, once one adjusted to the languid rhythm and the solitude.

Melancholy sometimes seems like a national cause in Portugal, one even promoted abroad in the form of countless travel features celebrating saudade. At the turn of the decade the local group Madredeus were heard everywhere, and were even brought to international prominence thanks to their wailing about Alfama in Wim Wender’s 1994 film ‘The Lisbon Story’. Fado, the name of the music they were playing, means ‘fate’. I began to develop a vague notion, partly acquired from those books and others like Saramago’s ‘Memorial do Convento’, partly from Pessoa’s poems and partly from articles I’d read in a special edition of the magazine Granta dedicated to Portugal (one which I had, fittingly, lost) that this atmosphere of apparent stasis was somehow related to history.

To be fatalistic means to accept whatever happens, however sorrowful, as inevitable. In Portugal that means looking back, living as it were in the pluperfect, feeling sad for what had been and mourning its absence. Such a stance seems to have its roots in Portugal’s sudden acquisition and loss of an empire.

It is a historical truism that Portugal had to expand to survive. The idea that the nation had been born with a civilising and christianising mission was no more than a reflection of historical realities. So as not to get subsumed into a bigger entity, Portugal needed to become a bigger and richer country, and so, partly drawn by ancestral legends telling of kingdoms of infinite gold overseas, the Crown invested in navigation. In the space of a single year (1498) Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope and Vasco da Gama reached India, and 24 years later even those achievements were surpassed by Ferdinand Magellan, who became the first explorer to circumnavigate the globe. Portugal wasn’t the only European country seeking to expand but it was ahead of the pack. Millennia of Jewish and Arabic wisdom and technology were put to very good use. The Portuguese reached Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Japan, and set up trading arrangements wherever they went. But it was all too big and too fast. Portugal was too small and too thinly spread to maintain control. They had networks of forts and trading posts but their empire was neither coherent nor centralised and they hadn’t effectively colonised the places they had nominally conquered, so were vulnerable to encroachments from the Spanish, the British and (in particular) the Dutch*.

Contrary to the later propaganda of the Salazar regime, the povo (common people) had little interest in expansion. A trope commonly evoked in Portuguese-speaking culture to decry a defeatist or pessimistic attitude is that of the ‘Old man of Restelo’**, a character in Luis Camões’ 16th century epic of expansion and conquest who condemns the departing expeditions as vain and wasteful. Certainly the Crown ransacked its new territories without building much back home in the way of infrastructure. Instead it spent the money earnt from slaves and silver on baroque palaces and manueline monasteries. The ruling elites also allowed Britain to exploit Portugal’s new wealth, which is why so much of British history and culture comes from or via Portugal. Tea was part of the dowry that came with Queen Catherine of Braganza, and Britain brought Portuguese wine in preference to French for political reasons. It is also partly thanks to Portugal that we have a taste for spices – it is telling that the word ‘vindaloo’ comes from the Portuguese words for wine and garlic. In Britain Portugal had its oldest ally, but the relationship wasn’t always to Portugal’s benefit. Church and crown became phenomenally wealthy but Portugal itself was undeveloped. The fact that nowadays it has just two big cities is a legacy of centuries of failure to build roads and develop internal trade.

The symbolic defeat of the Portuguese empire took place in what is now Morocco, with the death of the royal successor Dom Sebastião (known as ‘The Desired One’***) at the Battle of Alcácer-Quibir. Two years later the Portuguese Crown passed into the hands of Philip II of Spain. This led to a suspension of the alliance with England and a further deterioration in the empire. Although Sebastião was dead, a powerful current arose based on the rumour that he would return one foggy morning, giving Portugal its second birth. The idea that Portugal could still one day fulfill its mission of building the 5th great empire on earth took hold. This movement became known as Sebastianism and had a powerful proponent in Padre António Vieira, a Portuguese preacher in Brazil; it was still very much a theme in Pessoa’s poetry and nowadays when headlines such as this and this appear it is an appeal to Sebastianist sentiment, the idea that Portugal can shake off its past and be reborn.

Another ongoing theme in Portuguese history was that of the Inquisition. According to the historian António Saraiva, the prevalence of this institution can be attributed to the desire of the nobility and church to hold down the emerging mercantile class, which is why Jewish people were persecuted, forced to become ‘new christians’ or leave the country. Some were burnt in Rossio Square. The term ‘auto da fé’ is one that exists in several languages, designating the ritual of public penance of condemned heretics and apostates. In addition to the banishment of a whole class of entrepreneurs, Portugal also suffered from a quasi-colonial relationship with England with regard to the trade in wine and cloth. Although Portugal had regained its own crown from Spain in 1640 it was still very dependent on England for commerce and on the colonies for lucrative slaves, spices and precious metals. The ‘enlightened autocrat’ Marquês de Pombal made some progress in challenging the power of the reactionary nobility and the church, reigning in the Inquisition and rationalising the economy. However, the 18th century was also a time of wars with Spain, and colonial gold and silver were beginning to run out.

Then, in 1755, a massive earthquake struck Lisbon (as immortalised by Voltaire in Candide), destroying the city. The following century began with the Napoleonic invasion, at which point the royal family fled to Rio, which briefly became the capital of the empire until, tired of Portugal acting essentially as an intermediary between its products and the European market, it proclaimed Independence in 1822. The 19th century was also a period of civil wars between liberal and conservative factions. Throughout the century huge numbers of people left for Brazil, partly to replace the workers freed at the end of slavery. Emigration was (and continues to be) a constant theme in Portuguese history, with a large proportion of the people always leaving, mostly for South America. Few 18th and 19th century emigrants could be persuaded to move to Africa, with its disease, prison colonies and lack of prospects.

There was always the possibility of union with Spain. In the late 19th century this was seriously mooted as a means of survival. In reaction there was a powerful nationalist movement, based around the 350th anniversary of the restoration of ‘independence’. In fact, several historians have argued convincingly that the accession of João 1 in 1640 was not the result of a popular revolt but merely the change of one lord for another. Nevertheless, the campaign culminated in the erecting of a statue in what became known as Praça dos Restauradores, Restorers’ Square. In 1890, Portugal was humiliated internationally by being forced to give up territory it had claimed but never occupied between Angola and Mozambique. In response it launched a long and brutal campaign to pacify those parts of Africa it did nominally rule over, and there was a wave of nationalist fervour at home, resulting in what one historian called the ‘second foundation’, as it was during this time that the flag, shield, and the national anthem were chosen and the writing system standardised. Then, with the assassination of the King in 1910, a short-lived republic was installed.

Political and economic instability resulted. Fernando Pessoa wrote during this period of:

This dull brilliance of the land
That is Portugal sinking in sadness –
(…)

All is uncertain and ultimate.
All is fragmented, nothing is whole.
Oh Portugal, today you are mist..

If Pessoa thought a saviour was at hand, he wasn’t completely wrong, but it wasn’t anything like the one he’d been dreaming of. In 1926 António Salazar took over, and within a few years he had established the ‘Estado Novo’, the New State. He preached and practised a severe doctrine of austerity and self-reliance. I once asked a Portuguese friend if Salazar had children, and he laughed, explaining that he was ‘kind of a priest’, but he wasn’t the friendly sort, presiding instead over a brutal police state in which political opposition was crushed. Thousands were imprisoned, tortured and forced into exile. In the Second World War Portugal was ‘neutral’, but…with benefits.

As for the colonies, they played a powerful ideological role. In classrooms throughout the country for decades there hung a map of Portugal and its colonies coloured in as one country the size of Europe, accompanied by the slogan ‘Portugal is not a small country’. The nature of Salazar’s closed, integrated circle of trade meant that for a period the country was also economically dependent on its colonies. Portugal survived partly by providing raw materials and African workers for South Africa. This gave Portugal currency stability, particularly important as it traded little with other countries. Hence the response of the regime to the outbreak of anti-colonial agitation was ferocious. In 1951 it had declared that all its colonies were now overseas provinces, so it was an existential issue to hang onto them; letting go of them would be like giving up the Algarve. The irony that most of continental Portugal was still not particularly well-connected to the Algarve probably didn’t bother them unduly*****.

Portugal also actively promoted the notion that in its colonies racism had been overcome. It was argued that the Portuguese benefitted from a ‘unique gift for understanding the African’. In fact, from the start of the 20th century a system was in place in Portuguese colonies under which Africans had to qualify as ‘civilised’ by taking an exam. Very few passed and no white settlers were asked to do the same. Nevertheless the respected Brazilian sociologist and father of lusotropicalism Gilberto Freyre accepted an invitation from Salazar to visit Angola, presumably in his dotage and wearing lilac-shaded lentes, and he gave it a clean bill of health, before popping back to Brazil where he was last heard of singing the praises of his own country’s military dictatorship.

The PR effort by the Portuguese could not disguise the ugly reality of the brutal wars it was fighting across all its African ‘provinces’, with significant support from apartheid South Africa. Then, in 1968 Salazar fell off a chair******. The regime pretended he was still in charge for a while and then put someone more hapless in charge. Portugal was effectively freed on April 25th 1974 by its own colonies – a movement of army officers who were no more prepared to fight for a lost cause overthrew the regime overnight. It was already becoming a different country in economic terms. With the overseas-funded growth of the 1960, a new middle class was rapidly developing. Not that political stability had suddenly been achieved, however; there then followed several years of infighting between political forces whose Marxist revolutionary credentials were very quickly proving to have been forged.

For the philosopher-king of Portuguese national identity Eduardo Lourenço, membership of the European Community was the ‘best drug to cure the post-colonial hangover’. Not everyone agreed. In 1986, the year of both Spain and Portugal’s ascension to the EU, lifelong Communist José Saramago published his novel ‘The Stone Raft’, in which the entire Iberian Peninsula floats away, eventually to reposition itself midway between Africa and Latin America.

Perhaps all former colonising and colonised countries share something of this particular mix of melancholy, insecurity, guilt and regret. Like in a bullying relationship, the two sides of the equation are interdependent, defining themselves in relation to one another, and once freed/deprived of that role it’s inevitable that they are forced to face searching questions as to their identity. To quote Eduardo Lourenço again, such countries have to undertake a ‘slow, painful and perhaps impossible reconfiguration of our national mythology’. In the words of Portugal’s King Pedro V:

‘Once we were great, now we’re small. We are still not used to being small, and in the middle of our misery we still want to show off a level of luxury that provokes scorn. Let’s not delude ourselves; let’s look at reality, and let that be our starting point’.

Being from a former imperial power myself, one whose long-standing connection with Portugal has not always been to its advantage, I can see that Portuguese history and the attempts of the Portuguese to come to terms with their past has a lot to teach me. It shames me somewhat that my knowledge of Portuguese history is, although inevitably faulty, better than my understanding of my own*******. Nevertheless, learning about it has been a means of coming to terms with my own history, culture and identity. The British tend to err more on the side of arrogance than melancholy, but they are after all two sides of the same coin. While the Portuguese like to say that the word ‘saudade’ cannot be translated into any other language, I, and I’m sure most other people, find the English term ‘Brexit’ to be equally mystifying. Maybe it means that the UK’s necessary reconfiguration of its national mythology is no longer possible. I do hope not.

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* This is attested by numerous sources on the historical record but as this is a blog and not a history book I will just leave this here.

** See e.g. Dilma.

*** In Portugal all monarchs have nicknames. The English equivalent is not ‘Big Ears’, ‘the one who murdered all his wives’ and ‘that bloke who resigned to spend more time with Mein Kampf’. Incidentally, when José Mourinho called himself ‘the special one’ he must have been thinking in pretty grandiose terms.

**** In fact I just googled Ronaldo and Sebastião and I found this page by someone who is clearly, as the Portuguese say, madder than Batman.

***** I met people in Guimarães who told me that when they were kids it took two days to reach the Algarve and five hours to reach Porto.

****** As described in excruciating detail by Saramago in his you-had-to-be-there short story ‘The Chair’.

******* With regard to any inaccuracies please contact the Master’s tutors in the Portuguese Studies Department of King’s College London, ‘cos it’s them who taught me all this stuff.

Part 3

Lisbon: Postcolonial Melancholy, Part 1

1000px-panorama_of_alfama_lisboa_from_belvedere_portas_do_sol_on_2014-11-08In a previous life, I lived in Lisbon. I’d already decided it was my favourite city before I’d even set foot there, and in some ways – although I’d never want to go and live there again – it still is. 

I’d found the town I’d been living in up north very pretty but culturally and socially moribund. Most of the young people seemed to dress exactly like their parents and the more interesting ones were straining to escape and didn’t understand what I was doing there. Arriving for an exploratory visit to the capital in spring 2000, I climbed up from Santa Apolónia station to the ramshackle medieval labyrinth of Alfama, on the foothills that led up to the Castle. There was something about the light across the river which I found immediately beguiling and the intricate layout of the alleyways intrigued me. The city felt like it had been built on water.

Within a few days of moving there later that year I had my own 5th-floor cabin on the edge of Alfama, with dentists chairs and a view across the Tejo to Alameda. I had decided to take the place at first glance because when I had looked out of the window on my first visit there was a group of caravels lighting up the river. My flatmate was a sombre and taciturn Mexican restaurant manager who spent his days off “buying soap” (there were indeed two drawers full of the stuff in the kitchen) and sobbing along to Celine Dion. On my first weekend, mortifyingly hungover after meeting and greeting my new teaching colleagues in Carcavelos (I recall that the police were called at some point), I stumbled down in the glaring sunshine to Campo das Cebolas, where my new Mexican friend took one look at me and handed me a michelada. He may well have saved my life. For the rest of the day I floated round the deserted city, feeling like I was on a magic carpet and wondering just what was in that drink. I ended up entranced in the cinema before a random Portuguese film called ‘Peixe Lua’ (Moon Fish). It opened with a orchestrated panoramic swoop across the river and up towards the castle and then descended into a lush and more-than-a-little-silly tale of cross-border love triangles, bullfighters and Cordoban gypsies. Over the next four years I would occasionally oblige friends to watch the film with me but, like a movie seen on a late-night flight, it had little earthbound appeal.

When I went back in 2010 and 2013 I was disappointed and surprised to see that so many places I knew, shops, bars and restaurants that I had assumed had been and would be there forever, were gone. Years later I would read up on our ingrained tendency to essentialise other societies, to assume that whatever we see abroad is unchanging, eternal. A staple subject in English language coursebooks is just how happy everyone is in Bhutan. EFL teachers do have something of the eternal tourist along with (if you’re not careful) the worldview of a minor colonial administrator. Plus, of course, the lifestyle of a part-time alcoholic.

Fitting, then, that one of my favourite places (which, also fittingly, no longer exists) should be a bar, the Estrela d’Alfama, a tiny daytime place on Rua de São Miguel run by my hilarious English colleague Steve and his mordantly deadpan Finnish wife Jaana. It was one of the few times in my life when I felt I was inside a soap opera. Alfama sometimes seemed like a village. Everyone seemed to know everyone else’s business and there were some who very rarely left. The area is often romanticised but there is a lot more to it than picturesque charm – it seemed resistant to any attempts at what I now think of as trasteverisation. My fellow timewasters included João, a local lothario whose job, we eventually figured out, consisted of tiptoeing round shopping centres stealing fire extinguishers, Sauri, another Finn with a gift for intricate sculptures and mammoth vodka benders, and Joanna, an English colleague who could swoop from the most staggering heights of charm, wit and eloquence to the deepest canyons of inebriated truculence with the speed of a severely liver-damaged peregrine falcon. There were also men who had spent twenty years or so working in northern Europe on building sites and then returned exhausted to look after ailing parents, but whereas their counterparts from the north had spent their savings building the kinds of pink bungalows you see dotting the hills of the Minho and the Douro, they invested all they had in tiny bottles of Sagres and Superbock called minis. Thanks to such characters I learnt that anyone who drinks non-alcohol lager and is not pregnant at the time is a late-stage alcoholic. (Around this time I also learnt that someone who is drinking Cerveja Martini at 11am is probably an English teacher). In previous generations my fellow drinkers would probably have stayed in Alfama and worked on the docks, but such work had dried up and despite their often impressive command of spoken languages they didn’t have the education required to get jobs in the new economy. Some of the regulars were amazed that I could read newspapers of which they would struggle to get past the headlines. I tried to impress upon them the nature and extent of my good luck in having being born in a country which had had the foresight to impose its language on the world, which meant that my choice of livelihood, unlike theirs, had not depended on my ability to master other languages. But they insisted I must be some sort of genius. Nem por isso, I protested to little avail.

Often a despondent atmosphere prevailed, but everyone would cheer up such as when there was a big football championship on or some fado singers would turn up. Every June 12 was the festival of San António, prepared for months in advance, when the whole of Alfama would colourfully carouse on sangria and sardines and I would dig out my rusty bartending skills. In mid-2001 I moved up to the more rarified environs of Príncipe Real, to Rua da Palmeria, my own overfurnished deathtrap-wired bolthole. A Brazilian friend, the partner of the then Canadian Ambassador, who lived in a place with three bathrooms and (I seem to recall) eight balconies, described it as ‘aconchegante’. I looked it up; it means ‘cosy’. Back down in Alfama Jaana displayed very great fortitude in the face of provocation of local drunks, while I spent what now seems like several months at a time looking out of the door waiting for my friends, or anyone who spoke Spanish, to show up. One day it was two comedians: David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, who were ‘researching’ their new football show by walking round in the sunshine coming up with ‘improvised’ repartee. I joined in their bantering for a while but sadly they didn’t immediately offer to include me in any future projects. I also met a Chicagan taxi-driver who, when I asked him where he was from, responded by accurately guessing which part of Sheffield I had been brought up in. On another occasion me and my friend Andrew met a monolingual German couple who dragged us down to the local Irish pub to see Germany play England. We found it packed with British sailors, and it was only from Horst’s belligerently overjoyed reaction to Germany’s goal that I finally realised mit Hindsight und ein bisschen Angst that the hilarious football anecdotes he was loudly regaling me with mostly involved acts (his) of partisan violence. Luckily England then scored five times in quick succession, so the filthy looks and muttered abuse from the sailors began to taper off and the Schadenfreude of my new hooligan friend turned into a more incoherent and thus less life-jeopardising kind of Freude.

Meanwhile the world changed. In March 2001 the country was aghast to witness the sudden collapse of a bridge in the north of the country. Several cars and an entire coachload of local people plunged into the river. They were on their way back from an excursion to see the spring blossoming of cherry trees. It was soon discovered that local companies had been extracting the sand surrounding the pillars of the bridge; the whole country was outraged and then increasingly resigned. There was general agreement that in the rest of Europe such a thing could never happen.

Six months later I was walking into work for a lunchtime class when one of the more security guards told me out of the blue ‘é todo culpa tua!‘ – ‘it’s all your fault’, and when I responded with bafflement said something to do with some planes and the Empire State Building. I presumed he’d been drinking on the job, which was not unusual; it would indeed have been perfectly understandable. The euro came in and I got into debt for no reason at all. I got my first ADSL line and celebrated by staying awake for six whole months cheating at Championship Manager. Those Chinese shops which had been a novelty in Dublin became more ubiquitous. I made friends with people from more salubrious areas of the city and from less stable and/or prosperous parts of the world. Together we watched in dismay as Portugal’s golden generation threw a World Cup tantrum and stomped off in tears. In Jaana’s bar one constant refrain accompanied any change for the worse, from falling bridges to football punch-ups to rising prices: Tem que ser, pá: that’s just the way it is, man.

What’s that all about?, I thought.

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Part 2