On the morning on 25th April 1974, I was still in Madrid trying to make my way to Lisbon. The news was mixed; it was not immediately clear that the coup in Portugal was completely bloodless. I took myself to the British Embassy to seek advice; a very nice man told me that I would probably be OK if I appeared in Lisbon. But I did not care for the word “probably” and set out to wait, like Georgie Fame sang, “till the heat died down”. I need not have bothered.

After a wee while, I made my way to Lisbon by overnight train. I sat for hours in a packed carriage and was pretty exhausted by the time we were finally told to disembark. The official reason for the journey was to perfect (not quite the right work) my Portuguese; a friend from my university course was, there already, waiting for me to show and try my subjunctives on the local citizenry.  The coup had rather discombobulated everything. I learned subsequently that he had gone every day (after the first tank appeared) to the station to look for me  –  a kindness I have never forgotten or indeed repaid.

There was indeed a carnival atmosphere in the capital. Totally skint, I took a room in a BnB where I was introduced to o pequeno almoço, basically fantastic coffee. To this day, I still know the Portuguese words for different types of brew; not that this did me much use in my Finals. The streets seemed to be one endless march or demonstration and the refectory at the main university campus  –  I had made my way there  –  was regularly interrupted by someone shouting a speech at the eating students, usually to tumultuous applause. The speech was often incomprehensible but that did not stop me cheering myself hoarse. My throat was much improved by guzzling lots of Portuguese soft drinks, the names of which I can also still remember.

Along the way, I asked a waiter in my “hotel” what he himself privately thought of the revolution. I was not expecting him to burst into tears and make just about the best impromptu speech about freedom and specially freedom-from-fear that I have ever heard. A friend of mine, meanwhile, decided one day to take the train to the seaside only to discover that while the ticket collectors were on strike the drivers were working as usual; the people got wind and duly turned up for a free ride to the coast. Apparently, it was great fun. In the air, there was that mix of fun and gravity which made those days so unique.

We all watched General Spínola on the telly in cafés and bars. We all marched to Pombal under whatever banner the official would let us. Nobody really knew where it was all headed but everybody knew that the carnival would soon be over and hard choices would have to be made. Tough days lay ahead.

Some years later, I met Mario Soares, by then Prime Minister and, generally, strangely underwhelmed by my subjunctives. He was a fantastic public speaker. I recall him addressing the congress of the Socialist Party; he recounted a tale from the stump  –  apparently, a striking man (a teacher, I think) had refused to shake his outstretched hand and he had said something like :  “Sorry  –  not asking you to shake my hand but the hand of the millions who voted for me”.  Whoosh!

So what do I think of it all now? Well, I guess I learned that democracy is a very delicate flower, one that needs a lot of protection if it is not to disappear overnight. I learned  –  if I needed any further tuition  – just how cruel dictatorships can be, a point not lost on all those young Portuguese soldiers (years of military service were compulsory) who spent so long fighting stupid wars in Angola and Mozambique. (I remember well all the ghastly mutilations visible on the Avenida da República).

Real freedom means that nobody decides for you what is frivolous and what is serious; that choice belongs to the voter alone. But eventually adult decisions have to be made and peaceful transitions of power have to be defended by forces of arms  –  thrill to the paradox  –  if necessary. Portugal is now, among European nations, a pretty boring place and that is, no sadness here, how it should be / how it should have been / how it should always be.

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