We know that Michael Portillo is not a shrinking violet. The yellow blazer is a giveaway. But he outdid himself at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid during this episode of Great Continental Railway Journeys, the first in a new series.
Standing in front of Guernica, Picasso’s response to the bombing of the Basque town by Franco’s forces in 1937, Portillo was moved to talk about… himself. He explained how events at Guernica had persuaded the British government to accept refugees, which in a roundabout way led to the union of his mother and father. There was a pause, perhaps a beat too long, before Rosario Peiró, head of collections, replied: “That’s very nice.”
This is the problem with Portillo as a travel guide. Armed with his copy of Bradshaw’s Handbook (for this series, the edition from 1936, the year the Spanish Civil War broke out), he’s well-informed and lively company but he will rather galumph about, often misreading the mood. At the University of Salamanca (“older than my own Cambridge”), Portillo put an arm around historian Severiano Delgado, who had unearthed information about Portillo’s father, Luis Gabriel Portillo, the left-wing writer forced to live in exile in the UK after the Spanish Civil War. It was sweet but a bit clumsy and Delgado wasn’t all that happy about it.
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Portillo is not one for quiet curiosity. He is, in every respect, a boomer. After reaching the top of Madrid’s Telefónica Building, he proceeded to point out various landmarks to the archivist for the Telefónica Foundation. It simply wouldn’t have occurred to him that this was the wrong way round.
Portillo’s trip from Salamanca to Canfranc in the Pyrenees did turn up some interesting moments. He visited Huesca in north-eastern Spain, where George Orwell fought in the trenches. Orwell’s son, Richard Blair, recalled his father saying the cold “got into his bones” and described how his experiences in Spain and disillusionment with the communist cause was “the genesis of what he wrote later”.
When he listens, Portillo can be a very good interviewer but you suspect that no one has ever told him that excellent line about having two ears and one mouth. So on he goes, France next week, to tell the locals about their own history.