Eastbourne doesn’t have much to recommend it but it has – or had when I lived there, anyway – an absolute jewel of a bookshop. It was a massive, sprawling affair with three floors and no recognisable system. Sometimes there was a parrot upstairs. And it was there that I first came across a book called “Portuguese Somersault” by Jan and Cora Gordon. I’d never heard of it before and I haven’t heard much of them since, either. To my surprise, though, they are still known today, and there’s a chap who has taken the time to curate a fan site, with biographical details and more about their various travel writings, which you can find at janandcoragordon.co.uk.
The book is actually two books, written in 1926 and 1933, detailing their travels in the country. They are reflective travellers who took the trouble to learn something of the language and to investigate their own preconceptions of the country. Along the way, they made sketches, and these are scattered throughout the chapters as illustrations. Here, for example, is a fish seller blowing into his fish to make them look bigger so he can get a better price. Cool eh?
I read it yonks ago and can’t actually remember a whole lot of it, to be honest. Maybe it’s due for a re-read. What I do know is that the “Somersault” of the title is a reference to the dramatic change in the country between the two visits. 1926 was the year of the coup that overthrew the Primeira República Portuguesa and established a dictatorship which, by 1933, when they returned, had become known as the Estado Novo (New State), led by António de Oliveira Salazar.
One small, dark detail stuck in my mind that gave me a little premonitory shudder: On page 75, they meet a Portuguese girl who had been separated from her parents during the Great War and left with relatives in Germany. Growing up, she believed herself to be German. When she was finally reunited with her parents, ten years later, she was pleased of course, but it came as a huge shock to her to find that she wasn’t a German at all. What a jolt that must have been to a girl who felt herself to have a “German Soul”. Now, at the age of seventeen, she would have less freedom than before. Worse, she would have to marry a Portuguese man who wouldn’t even understand her German love. Well, I think we can all see how this sort of cultural dislocation would be a shock to anyone. What I thought was telling, though, was when she describes her disappointment at finding out that she wasn’t who she thought she was:
“They want me to be a nice Portuguese girl but I can’t because, you see, I’ve been brought up as a German girl, and I was taught in the school that the Germans are the higher race, aren’t they? Do you see that?”
Jan and Cora note this as a minor personal tragedy but don’t comment on the idea that Germans are teaching children to feel themselves superior to everyone else. And this just ten years from German bombs falling on neighbouring Spain at the start of the Civil War, thirteen years from the start of the Second World War. The Salazar government was neutral in both, but gave military and logistical support to the Nationalist (and German) side in Spain and was broadly sympathetic to Hitler, only staying out of World War Two because of long-standing alliances with Britain.
Well, it’s easy for me, with the benefit of hindsight, to read more into this incident than the Gordons did. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that they should have seen the future in that one little tale, but I thought it was a fascinating little glimpse into what was happening under the surface of Europe in the inter-war years.