memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

I have seen the Future

At the beginning of the 20th century there was an American left-wing journalist, Lincoln Steffens who, in 1919, made a three-week visit to the new-born Soviet Russia. He was impressed with the evolutionary ideals that the Soviet Government were putting practice and on his return he made the (oft-repeated) declaration I have seen the Future and it works!

It is strange to think of today, but when I first came to Portugal in the autumn of 1980 there were no supermarkets (yet alone hypermarkets) and no shopping malls. The banks operated on 19th century principles, with long polished wooden counters in front of which stood patient, subdued queues of people waiting to be served. Behind the counter in full view was an enormous space full of small desks behind each of which was a smallish sleek dark-haired man, (not a woman to be seen), dressed in white shirts and ties  (long sleeves in the winter, short sleeves in the summer) whose work seemed to consist of chatting with their colleagues about their weekends and occasionally frowning thoughtfully at a piece of paper then rubber-stamping it decisively before getting up, crossing the room and depositing onto another desk, with a joke here and a quip there. There was a leisurely rhythm to their work which was entirely devoid of any sense of urgency, as though they had all the time in the world (which indeed they did they have). Every now and then and then they would spot an acquaintance waiting in the queue and saunter across to the counter, shake hands and enquire  what they could for them; (like, I’d like some money?) It was sweet work and they were all enjoying it. I marvelled at how so many people could do so little work. This is my kind of country, I thought.

Don’t change, I thought, I’m from the Future and it doesn’t really work that well.

Portugal had slept for about 50 years under a more or less benevolent fascist dictatorship. Cerebral activity was discouraged. (Books contained ideas that could question the religious or political tenets held by Church and State – books were dangerous). One seldom saw anyone reading anything on the Lisbon metro except for magazines or comics. Instead the senses were cultivated; gastronomy (there were about 350 ways to cook the national dish – codfish), the beach in summer (everyone in Lisbon had fantastic tans) and above all football, where people obsessively followed the fortunes of their club – Benfica, Sporting or Porto.

The Catholic Church was very much the state religion and kept a rigid grip on peoples’ souls. The country turned its back on Europe and tended to its dying African empire.

For us language-teachers life was good. Those were the days before CDs and mobile phones. The personal computer was still only a gleam in some super-geek’s eye, the internet unthinkable. Those were the days of the vinyl record and the audio-cassette.  Those were the days when one used to actually write letters, put them into envelopes, address them and affix stamps onto them, (the glue on the backs of Portuguese stamps didn’t really work in the sense that there wasn’t any, so one also had to purchase one of those yellow sticks of paste to use on the backs of the postage stamps – one had visions of tens of thousands of secretaries up and down the land busily pasting the backs of stamps … well, one supposed, someone had to do that job so it might just as well be all those secretaries) and carry them down to a post office.

In those days we didn’t even have a TV. What was the point? Portuguese TV was meretricious – amateurish and derisory. We used instead to go out for delicious meals followed by the magic of the cinema with which Lisbon was generously supplied; and as an added bonus, the Portuguese had the good taste to show the films in the version original (English).

The more I explored the beautiful countryside and old towns the more I became reluctant to leave. As for the people themselves, well I’ve lived for a minimum of three years in five countries during the course of my life and I would hesitate to claim to be able to pinpoint any particular national characteristic, including my own, without falling back on generalisations and stereotypical clichés – the French are rude and stylish, the Germans are organised and have no sense of humour, the English are cold and pompous etc. etc.

But Portuguese people are in general simply nice, which is a heart-warming thing. (I wouldn’t have stayed for so long otherwise).

So here’s the premise: Portugal missed The Modern Age. She just didn’t do modern but leapfrogged neatly and seamlessly from The Industrial Age to the Post-Modern or High-Tech Age and, like other Western countries, spent a couple of decades contently feeding at the trough of banking booms, construction booms, European subsidies, flourishing service sectors and, above all limitless credit … (everyone had a good time) until, until, well one knows the rest, until the trough was empty.       

I might as well be here. I gave up yearning to be elsewhere in some ideal Eldorado, Shangri-La or Utopia years ago.

We’re here because we’re here because we’re here sang the soldiers in the trenches.

Besides, I feel physically secure here. It must be one of safest places in Europe. I mean, America and her European allies are hardly likely to go weak at the knees if Al Qaeda’s master-plan was to plant a bomb in an Old People’s Home on the north coast of Portugal.

There’s been a bomb explosion in a village in Portugal, Mr. President!

What! Well hell that’s just about the last straw! Let’s go to Red Alert! We’re pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan, guys!

And now it’s back to the Future. Doesn’t seem to be working that well, does it?

FRENCH LANDSCAPE – WATER-COLOUR by my father ROBERT MILNER

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