Barry Hatton: “The Portuguese are starting to despair”


PDV caught up with the British author and local correspondent for the Associated Press who has called Portugal home for over 25 years, sharing his insight on the country, its people and what makes it worthwhile living here despite the centuries-old crisis.

Culture Features What's New — 17 May 2013 by Marina Watson Peláez
Barry Hatton: “The Portuguese are starting to despair”

Barry Hatton’s book “The Portuguese“, is a moving account of the country’s decline based on historical facts but fused with his own personal experience.

The British Associated Press (AP) journalist has lived in Portugal for over 25 years and is married to a Portuguese woman, with whom he has three children, enabling him to draw back to his own personal experiences both as a foreigner and as a local, describing the country not solely through historical facts and figures but mainly through its people.

The “peaceful disorder” that he describes in “The Portuguese” is worsening and the people are beginning to despair, Hatton tells PDV almost two years after the book was published. Though the Portuguese are not known for being violent, Barry Hatton says they will keep fighting, but in a disorganised way.

When did the financial crisis start?

That’s a good question. I imagine around the mid 18th century. Things have been bad for a few centuries now. There has been a big problem for a long time in Portugal of balancing budgets and basically how you live in society, placing too much faith in the state and going to private enterprise, taking risks rather than taking the easy option of settling back and letting the state take care of you, which comes from the Discoveries. Here it was the crown that went and did it, whereas what we call now Holland and in Britain it was given to private entrepreneurs, East India companies and what have you.

I mean we’ve had this problem over centuries. The good times of bonanza of the 1990s when all this EU money came in and interest rates dropped with the euro and what have you, that was just a sort of an exception. So you can understand why the Portuguese spend so wildly – because they went from famine to feast. I mean, hundreds of years of famine and suddenly they got a feast, so they just went crazy.

So the crisis has to do with the Portuguese culture

Yes, and the history of the country and the way the country is. It’s funny, I didn’t put this in my book but Alexandre Herculano, a writer from the 19th century, said the problem was that Portugal is a cake, and the needs of the Portuguese are bigger, and so that explains many of the problems the Portuguese have like envy and emigration. It explains why people get hold of a job for life and don’t let go of it. Trying to understand the crisis since 2008 and the Lehman Brothers misses the point completely, which is why the whole response to the crisis doesn’t make much sense either. It’s treating the eurozone or Western Europe as if all countries were the same, as if they all had the same ways of doing things, as if they all had the same history and culture… and it’s not true.

How would you describe the main traits of the Portuguese?

As I mentioned in this book, they’ve got this whole thing of contradictory traits, like Zé Povinho [a Portuguese everyman who became the first symbol of the working-class people] who I think is still such a relevant character for the Portuguese. They have all these different two sides of the same coin: they’re very peaceful, they don’t want to go to war… but they are also given to blowing their tops. That’s why you open Correio da Manhã, one of the papers, and you get pages and pages about someone who shot someone out in the middle of nowhere. They sort of just spontaneously lose their heads, but they’re not organised in it. So you have all of these contradictions; they’re delightful to foreigners but they are quite horrible to each other. So there are all these contradictions, it’s quite fascinating.

Why do think protests are so peaceful here?

The Portuguese are just not given to it, it’s not in their blood. As one of the German philosophers said, who I mentioned in my book, the Portuguese don’t want to fight. They would much rather be everyone’s friend and just get on quietly. Where that comes from, I don’t know. It’s almost as if it came from turning their backs on the European internal fighting that went on for centuries and looking out to sea. But on the other hand, they had to go and fight and when they went to build the empire they had to go and take things off local people, which required some pretty gutsy and ruthless policies on the part of the Portuguese. I mean, no one has got an answer because they must come from so far back. It’s also the whole thing about nature versus nurture as well.

Do you think they protest in other ways, by not paying tax for instance?

Yes. Again, it’s that contradiction where they love the state and its going to help them and have money to help them but they are not actually going to pay any money to the state through taxes. They’d prefer to outsmart it, so obviously that’s a form of protest isn’t it? Whether it’s idealistic protest or quite low-down selfish protest, I’m not so sure.

Do you think the Portuguese have become more violent as the economic crisis deepens?

I think they are starting to despair. I think when you reach a state of despair you are more inclined to go over the top and do things you wouldn’t normally do. I mean, I think all of us would start stealing food to feed our kids. I think things are going to get a bit worse but having said that I think it’s spontaneous incidents rather than organised mass violent protest, like during the French invasions. Three times they (the French) came in and the British army tried to organise them into a fighting unit, but what the Portuguese were most like naturally was spontaneous eruptions against the French. It’s like those games that you have to bash something and it keeps popping back up. The Portuguese are very resilient and they’ll just keep fighting, but in a disorganised way.

Have you noticed any aspects of social change since your wrote your book?

I was very hopeful about a new generation, because Portugal is producing it’s best educated generation ever now. People are coming out of universities and more and more people have got higher education qualifications. But of course, the problem is they’re all going abroad! There will be some change with these people though, as the way the world is at the moment it’s easier to compare yourself to what’s going on elsewhere, you can see what’s going on in the world quite easily, friends all around, foreigners, so they’ve got a yardstick and they can measure themselves and what their lives are like, and that will inevitably change something because people won’t be happy with it.

In your book you refer to Portugal as a largely overlooked country which gets little news from international media. Do you think this could be changing now, with constant news about the economic crisis?

It is, but to what extent I don’t know. In a sense it is mentioned just almost in passing that it’s just another of one of the bailout countries. Sometimes sporadically there is interest in doing something bigger but I think it gets lost a lot, there is so much information out there these days that things tend to bypass people. I think tourism is doing more than the actual crisis in terms of getting Portugal known. I get the impression that Portugal is quite in fashion at the moment, especially Lisbon. You know, there are a lot of prizes now mentioned, awards, there seem to be a lot more tourists around, new hotels… So I think that’s getting talked about a lot more definitely.

Are tourists still only going to the Algarve? The trend seems to be changing…

Well, you know you have all that coastline all the way down to the Algarve, pristine beach, golden beach, unspoiled which is probably what the Algarve looked like in the 60s. So I think in a way I don’t want tourists to find out about it because they’ll spoil it, it will be the end of that but the word will start getting around. There are places in Portugal that are as beautiful as Tuscany or south of France and people have never heard of them so I think the future’s brighter in that regard.

You say the Portuguese are very melancholic.

It is again looking back through history. Like Scolari (Brazilian coach of Portugal from 2003-2008) said, the Portuguese are afraid of feeling happy. History has taught them that if things are good now, just round the corner there’s another crisis coming and it’s going to be bad again. And if you look at the standards of living here and the incomes it’s incredibly low, I mean the minimum salary €485… It’s crazy and people don’t know that. I mean I would be gloomy earning that.

How do you think this pessimistic attitude and thinking little of themselves affects their day-to-day lives?

I suppose you just get stuck in a routine, where you think if nothing can improve, hanging on to what you’ve got and thinking yourself lucky even if it’s little. Almost always in opinion polls in Portugal, what people are most worried about is keeping their job, that’s the top concern. Even if you do earn €485 at least that gives you a fighting chance, you have something to hold on to. So I think there is that sort of, not giving up but being content with little and thinking you’re actually quite lucky to have that little bit.

When friends from other countries come to Portugal, where do you take them?

To be honest, obviously around Lisbon to all the obvious places. And I really like and they like to get out of the city and go to the country side, to these places like “tascas”  in the middle of nowhere where you can have this chewy wine and great meal for low prices. Especially friends who come from London or something, you can eat out, five people, for the same price as one in London.

What’s your favourite food?

I’ve got so many. There’s a lot of traditional stuff, probably “bacalhau no forno” (baked codfish).  There’s really nothing I don’t like, I love all the stews and “feijoadas” and “favas”. I only eat Portuguese food at home.

What do you think the Portuguese are not making the most of?

The Portuguese are not very good at selling themselves, especially through tourism. This whole thing of people complaining saying “oh, one of these days we’ll just be here selling sardines to rich northern Europeans,” but why not? I mean Florida does pretty much the same thing and they’re fine. So I think people don’t know what a great place Portugal is, for a foreigner at least. And people love it, it’s hard to find someone who’s been to Portugal and didn’t like it.

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