Ascending a soggy, stepped slope in the Douro Valley I felt I finally might have had a Brexit revelation.
Ahead of us, a woman in her seventies slowly and steadily climbed the steep, snaking, cobbled path leading to her village. On her head she balanced a bucket filled with clothes which had been pummelled to cleanliness on the stone slabs of a communal washhouse nestled in the crook of the valley.
On a terrace above the path, a handful of grimy agricultural labourers, taking a break from pruning gnarled vines, huddled around a roaring camp fire warming hands on tin mugs. Step back 50/60 years or even further and I’m willing to bet the image would be exactly the same.
It was a bitter day, but the scene was nostalgically warming.
Before we’d set out on our route we’d been racked with guilt at abandoning a dog which had attached itself to us in a small village. The tail-wagging canine accompanied us on our final five kilometres to our accommodation at Quinta de la Rosa, a wine/port producer and boutique rural hotel near Pinhao. When we asked the reception staff at the Quinta what to do with the scruffy, loveable mutt who refused to go home and acted delirious to see us every time we appeared from our room, they waved concerns away.
“Don’t worry, it happens all the time. Dogs like to follow walkers. He’ll hang around until he’s ready to go home. Anyway, we know people in his village. We’ll call and tell them the dog is here.”
The rosy glow from this rural community, people bonded by the production of Port wine for over 300 years, was like being wrapped in a Merino wool blanket on a chilly morning.
Materially, many of the country people we passed along the trail might be classed as being poor. I regularly see statistics used as a tool to illustrate levels of poverty where the UK is shown as being second only to Romania in relation to the number of people teetering on or falling below the poverty danger zone. Having experienced how people live in other European countries, it was a table which initially seemed questionable to me. But there are various statistics related to poverty levels, the most revealing being absolute poverty statistics. This measures a range of fundamental requirements – electricity, water, housing, food etc. The one usually bandied around by the UK media is for ‘relative poverty’ – people who earn less than 60% of a country’s average income. This is applied across EU countries irrespective of actual earnings and, as a result, can be misleading to anyone who doesn’t know how to interpret statistics, or what life in other European countries is like. In the UK the average monthly salary in 2018 was €2,498. In Portugal it was €1,158. Basically, by using this measure, to be on the poverty line in Britain (€1498) someone would still be earning above the average wage in Portugal. (Source: European Parliament official statistics).
Who knows what income these country people in the Douro had? In rural areas on Tenerife there are many people existing on under €500 a month. Life looked even more frugal in the high mountains of Portugal where I was reminded of the Britain I grew up in – outside toilet and one small room which served as kitchen, living room and bathroom (a tin tub in front of a fire). Apologies for briefly veering into Monty Python territory there.
Watching the country folk of the Douro Valley prompted memories of another working valley we’d visited recently, at Wanlockhead in Scotland. It was on a far smaller scale but, even though the mine which had drawn workers had been closed for a long time, the same sense of community had prevailed. Entrepreneurs might have brought work and therefore life, but they’d also exploited the people who were responsible for their riches. As a result the workers united, setting up co-operates and unions – a snapshot of Scotland’s shared political psyche. Wanlockhead boasted one of the most impressive small libraries I’ve seen anywhere. The miners would spend a substantial amount of their annual earnings to be able to temporarily escape from a back and potentially spirit-breaking life down dark and dangerous mines. They were hard workers and well educated people.
Browsing the old books and listening to stories brought to life by a bright-eyed custodian reminded me of the people who influenced/educated me most when I was growing up; uncles, aunts and cousins who worked the land or toiled in grimy Clyde factories and whose colourful knowledge of the world kept me up far beyond my bedtime. Some of my dad’s family lived in Easterhouse, considered one of the most brutal housing estates in Europe. This was one of the two places we went on ‘holiday’. The other was a farm in Dumfries and Galloway (the yin and yang of my family’s roots – urban and rural). But even in the toughest areas there was still a robust sense of community, a feeling of belonging.
Entrepreneurs and the industries they created brought work and therefore community to places. Once industries fell into decline, or were destroyed, and the capitalists departed, communities and the glue which held them together disintegrated.
In places like the Douro Valley that hasn’t happened. The Port wine industry continues to shape the personality of the area and life appears to go on much as it has done for centuries, albeit with a few mod-cons added.
To stand on a Douro hillside was to peer into a past which stretched beyond geographical boundaries. It was like looking back at a slice of life which has disappeared from many, but not all, parts of the UK.
In interviews with English people, especially the older ones, there are often references to making Britain great again. That’s generally taken to mean harking back to the days of the Empire. The Douro prompted me to think again about that. I suspect that for some, Brexit might be more a yearning to return to a time when working class communities thrived and people felt kinship with their neighbours. It made me wonder if a sizeable chunk of people are simply grieving for a pastel-shaded past which has all but dissipated, and don’t know any other way in which to vent a subconscious sense of loss.
Who knows for sure? I certainly don’t. I’m still as perplexed as the next person, and don’t know how to answer fellow Europeans (a neighbour whose company in Lisbon is being affected by Brexit, taxi drivers in remote hills, and a count) when they ask “why?” accompanied by a bemused question mark.