I was all ready to start at Queen’s College to read Modern Languages. The only problem was, I wasn’t.
Wasn’t at all ready, that is. I’d done Spanish at A Level, but I needed a second tongue to go with it. I could not bear the prospect of more Latin (Oxford still regards Latin as a Modern Language.) How about French, then? Well… I’d given that up after O Levels (does anyone remember those?) so it seemed like a backward step. Would it be possible to start Portuguese from scratch? Oh yes, by all means. They assigned me a couple of 19th-century novels. I went so far as to purchase a Portuguese grammar book (worryingly hefty) and dipped into it in a desultory way over the summer months. I had no idea what the language actually sounded like. I arrived at Oxford in October 1973 knowing as much Portuguese as the next man. Which is to say, nothing at all.
Surely it must be very similar to Spanish?
At my first tutorial I was a bit surprised to discover that I was only person in Oxford taking Portuguese – which put me into a very exclusive group: 0.03% of that year’s intake! There would be no-one to discuss my essay crises with and, more importantly, no-one to crib off. With the aid of a dictionary I started on Dom Casmurro, a 320-page, very sophisticated Brazilian novel by Machado de Assis. Some words were obviously the same, or nearly the same as in Spanish. But many fewer than I’d hoped for. This was going to be hard.
As well as weekly tutorials with my tutor, Prof. Tom Earle, I was enjoying one-on-ones with the leitora, Dona Lia Correia. After just a week I was treated to a lecture on 19th-century Portuguese politics, of which I understood only “Lord Canning” and “Portugal”. I nodded in a neutral fashion, and pretended to take notes. Things started to go awry after 20 minutes when Lia asked me a question: first in Portuguese and then in English. She realised she’d been wasting her time and we’d have to start again. Lia was keen to help me perfect my pronunciation, distressed as she was by my mangling of Camões, her country’s national poet.
As armas e os barões assinalados
Every time I made a mistake, which was every time I dared to open my mouth, she would correct me. (She even corrected my Latin pronunciation.) Anyone who’s attempted to learn Portuguese will tell you how difficult it is. A Level Spanish doesn’t help with the challenges of nasalisation, vocalisation and palatalisation. It was impossible to get two words out without being interrupted. Then she’d ask me what it meant. I could only guess, but I was soon past caring and just wanted to run away to my cell in the Florey Building.
Somehow I passed, after just two terms, my first public exam, known as Prelims. I was awarded, although I don’t remember applying for it, a Portuguese Ministry of Culture scholarship to attend the summer school at the University of Coimbra. What fun I was going to have grappling with strong and weak object pronouns!
I had been studying to “degree level” for a year but had never been to Portugal. In fact I had only heard two people speaking the language, and one of those was English!
In July 1974 I set off in excited trepidation for six weeks in Coimbra. As soon as we landed in Lisbon and the doors opened, the hot air hit me. It was dark when I boarded the bus for the city centre, making friends with an American couple, Joe and Marlene, on the way. I offered to find us a couple of rooms at a pensão on the Avenida da Liberdade. The owner wanted to squeeze the three of us into one bed – to save on rooms, I assume. Or perhaps he wanted to spy on us through the keyhole. I reckoned two beds in the one room would be intimate enough, and we agreed to that.
The following morning I bought a first-class train ticket from Lisbon – not knowing how uncomfortable second class might turn out to be. (A taxi driver had offered to take me the whole way to Coimbra from Rossio station but even I wasn’t that naïve.) After about three hours, the train stopped at a station called Coimbra B in the middle of nowhere, and a lot of people got off. While I was dithering a tram arrived, I got on, and I soon found myself in the beautiful town of Coimbra.
Portugal was then in the twilight of its Fascist era. After the 25 April 1974 Revolução dos Cravos, it was (in theory) now a democracy. I’d written ahead to reserve a room in a hostel in the Praça da República. The Pensão Diogo charged 100 escudos (about £1.50) for a bed and three meals a day. Huge quantities of food and wine were set before us: as much as anyone could possibly consume. Of course there were some negatives. When you went out in the evening you never knew which room you’d be sleeping in when you got back, or whom you would be sharing it with. Beds got moved around to satisfy nightly requirements. But there was so much noise from the trams that seemed to run all night, plus the stifling heat, that it was almost impossible to sleep anyway.
Whereas the old university buildings were as magnificent as Oxford’s, our lecture rooms at Coimbra were post-war Brutalist, uncomfortably hot, and heavy with smoke from SG cigarettes. It was much more pleasant to spend the afternoon at the open-air swimming pool or the Santa Clara park.
I must confess, I was far from a dedicated student. I struggled with the insanity of Portuguese grammar (those pronouns, future subjunctives, personal inflected infinitives, etc.), and I often thought that Latin would have been easier. But I did take the opportunity to explore the culture of Portugal, then rather isolated from the rest of Europe. I went to the seaside at Figueira da Foz; I went to the abbey at Batalha and that ridiculous shrine at Fátima. I went to a fado evening and enjoyed it for all of an hour.
I flew back to Blighty at the end of August. My Portuguese had improved considerably, I’d made some friends who lived in London and I’d avoided having to find a holiday job.
Three years later I sat my Finals. I did surprisingly well in Portuguese, better than in Spanish, and I considered doing post-grad research on the sermons of Padre António Vieira! Eventually I came to my senses: I never really got to grips with the language and I would have been found out sooner or later.
I have to say that my degree in Portuguese has been only slightly more useful than my A Level in Latin, but it does allow me to surprise and delight waiters in Stockwell and that is no mean thing.