Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-45

Cover of LisbonThe great Italian poet Dante Alighieri once said, “the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality”. I generally agree with that sentiment when I look back on history and the lamentable omissions of leaders.

However, I’m reminded from time to time that geopolitical life isn’t always as simple as it seems … especially after reading baffling books like Neill Lochery’s Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the city of Light, 1939-45.

Lisbon covers the history of Portugal during WW2 under the dictator General Salazar, as he navigates the seas of non-alignment – among other seemingly unethical things.
Make no mistake, Salazar was a shrewd economist and politician, but opposed liberalism, democracy, socialism and anarchism (there being a strong anarchist movement in Europe at the time). Basically it was a fascist, authoritarian regime which persecuted lots of people.

But, despite the fascism that Lochery describes, the Salazar regime achieved the seemingly impossible during WW2 – Portugal being one of the few windows of escape from German occupied Europe for tens of thousands of persecuted Jews. Who then made their way to America, South America, England and Palestine.

However, not only was Portugal an avenue for escape for Europe’s Jews, its neutrality meant it was a swirling frenzy of desperate humans, all trying to get theirs in an environment wracked with widespread espionage and a bountiful black market (other war refugees, human trafficking, bribery, commercial dealings). Strangely, despite the authoritarian Portuguese regime with its secret police, laissez-faire Lisbon was a city where foreign operatives could to what they wanted, as long as Portugal’s internal affairs where left alone.

Therefore, Lisbon became a hive of WW2 undercover operations as German, English and American agents attempted to buy people, information and documentation in order to sabotage the other teams interests. One noteworthy individual in the midst of it all was Ian Fleming, who conceived his James Bond stories as a result of his experiences as an agent frequenting bars and gambling in Lisbon (think Casino Royale).

So, with all this carry-on comes intimate stories of individual brilliance and blundering as various agents, politicians, public servants and officials cleverly secured passage for escaping Jews and other scared peoples. The story of actor Leslie Howard’s (Gone With The Wind) death is relayed to us, as he and several other Jewish and English persons of interest are shot down in a plane leaving Lisbon. German counter-intelligence hoping Churchill was in there too. All rather thrilling!

Salazar’s economic dealings were a tightrope walk. He needed to keep his economy afloat, all the while keeping the Allies and Germans happy with critical exports for their own war efforts – export too much and one side gets angry at you, export too little and Hitler might get suspicious and invade you like he did the rest of mainland Europe. The pressure really must have been unbearable at times for Salazar, who was surrounded in Europe by Fascist Spain and Italy in the South, and Fascist Germany controlling much of Europe – any solid evidence of collaborating with the English and Portugal would have been pincered.

The author does well to convey the tension and apprehension of the people on the streets and in political office – as if time was running out to move the tide of refugees and information on to safer shores, before Hitler rumbles into town. In this respect this work reminds me of the film Casablanca. If you like that, then you will like this.

It leaves me a bit perplexed in terms of my own ethical principles, because Salazar was in many ways a tyrant. But that’s the thing I like about this book – it gives you insights into the decision making processes of those in leadership, without whom, many more lives would have been ruined.

Despite developing an appreciation for Salazar’s war time leadership, he was still a fascist. Give me liberal democracy any day.

Oh, and i’ts a beautiful book cover too.

Brave

Last Friday I was invited to the Aranui High School Music Block as the “library representative” to BRAVE- Daisy Poetry Promenade and her very special guests. Being the uncultured and not very creative heathen that I am, I wasn’t in the slightest prepared for this mind-blowing space collaboration of Samoan heritage, arts, music, and the poetry of Daisy herself. Just to put things into perspective, I know Daisy in a rugby-sense, that power that she exudes so effortlessly on the rugby field is ever present in her art, music, and this poetry promenade.

Daisy - Photo Credit: Joseph O'Sullivan Photography
Daisy. Photo Credit: Joseph O’Sullivan Photography

There were six stages in the promenade, our group of 60-odd was split into two groups and as we passed each other from stage to stage you could sense both the anticipation of the next space and excitement fizzing over from the last visited space.

In the first space: Vasa (vasa is the Samoan word for sea or open ocean) – Daisy’s family took centre stage with husband Seta Timo picking a traditional Samoan hymn on the double bass, followed by daughter Hadassah – all of seven years old – relating her experience as a second-generation NZ born Samoan in the poem “I am a teine Samoa.” Daisy and Hadassah spoke of the fibres of their lives being interwoven like a fine mat, this for me, was the perfect analogy of the richness and beauty of the whole performance.

The different stages wove the strands of Daisy and her life thus far, showcasing the musical Pasifika talents of Christchurch including DJ Infared – fresh off an international DJ tour, Christchurch’s premier session band – The Judah Band, Nathan Phillips, Zion Tauamiti, and some massive gospel talent with Lady Julz representing South Auckland. Each stage was threaded together by Daisy’s poetry, and there was also an emergence of new poetic talent incorporated in Annabel Ariki and Maddie Mills of Cashmere High School.

The integration of the Samoan culture was something to behold, captured by Joseph O’Sullivan and John Ross. O’Sullivan and Ross emboldened some of Christchurch’s pe’a, malofie (pe’a or malofie is the Samoan tatau – tattoo –  for men) and malu (Samoan tatau for women wearers – including Daisy) to tell the tales of their tatau through videography and photography. The moving full-length contents of these interviews and some of the images will eventually be gifted to high schools in Christchurch to include in their Samoan Language curriculum.

In parallel to Daisy’s oratory capabilities, the last stage was a re-enactment of a si’i alofa, which is a gift giving ritual that takes place at a wedding or funeral. The si’i alofa is usually a place where the chiefly Samoan language is spoken, they speak poetically and in metaphors and make reference to history, myths and legends, and the natural world. Like the si’i alofa, in the words of Daisy herself, at the centre of it all is love.

This collaborative space project was enabled largely through the love of many people; people that share a love for the arts, Samoan culture and ultimately the drive, vision and love of one woman, Daisy Lavea-Timo who is well beyond Brave. This show is one that will no doubt be shared on all creative platforms and stages not just here in Christchurch but further afield.

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Cover of The Elocutionist Cover of Ua tālā le ta'ui