Monday, 12 December 2011

The Maramures: The Last Peasants


"The country is holding its breath today," read The Times. “Tension and nerves will be felt by millions who know that the bombers have chosen Thursday as a day of atrocity.”
The world has been rewritten by the writers of cheap thrillers. And not necessarily present day thrillers. We feel as if we are in the neurotic pre-1914 landscape of William Le Queux or early Edgar Wallace.
While Londoners were waiting pensively in the tube I was in another kind of pre-1914 landscape, driving through villages in the Maramures, the northern edge of Transylvania bordering on Ukraine. Here life hasn’t changed very much in centuries but it will soon change utterly. Here in the most conservative part of Romania, Europe’s least modern country, peasants have not completely given up traditional costumes, for example. Such tractors as were to be found here under Communism were long ago sold off and horse-drawn ploughs are universal. Old women in black scatter seed in the fields. This is subsistence farming of a kind which had disappeared elsewhere and must soon disappear here too.
It took me fifteen years to get to Maramures. In 1990 when everyone in the Transylvanian countryside wore traditional costume to Mass and cars were scarcely seen, I asked my Romanian companion, ‘Is this the poorest part of Romania?’ It was my first day here. ‘No, it’s the richest. Can’t you tell?” A disconcerting reply. ‘If you want to see somewhere poor and old fashioned you should go to Maramures. In Maramures they’re still living in the Stone Age.’
In those fifteen years Maramures has changed like the rest of Romania. Gloucestershire has been bought up by stockbrokers wanting weekend cottages and Maramures I had read was full of villas built by customs officers and police colonels.  And there are plenty of big new houses around. A lot fewer people wear costume every day than did when I missed my first chance to visit. Tourism is bigger business now than it was then and there is a steady stream of foreign visitors but the area still feels pretty undiscovered, well protected by its inaccessibility. You can’t get there easily from anywhere by car, train or plane.
In Maramures villages men in hats and women with scarves, aged from thirty upwards, spend a lot of time sitting on roadside benches. They look attentively at each car or pedestrian that passes and conversation languishes. Tranquil is I suppose the word. The bomb explosions in London seemed unreal to Londoners but less real in Maramures.
Agrotourism, putting up with peasants, is the joy of travelling in Romania. This is tourism on a human scale, bespoke. You are a lodger but treated as a friend.  Catch it before its innocence has been lost and before Romania enters the E.U. in 2007. Your hosts who are subsistence farmers provide milk for your coffee fresh from the cow at the end of the garden. How much will be lost when EU health regulations bring all this to an end.
The priest’s wife in the village of Botiza, Mrs Victoria Berdecaru, has revived the carpet making industry in the village, organised a very neat crafts museum and organises accommodation for visitors. I stayed with Vasile the handsome 40 year-old local carpenter and handyman who built the museum and who told me ‘I do everything except dig graves. I won’t dig graves.’
I came on a chance impulse to see the 38th edition of the Hora La Prislop festival. Horas  are traditional Romanian dances and every village has its dances. Hora La Prislop is held on a mountainside and participants from villages throughout the Maramures compete for prizes. It attracts a big well-mannered audience who sit on the grass watching the stage neither eating, drinking nor talking. I also noticed three or four foreigners, one bestrewn with two large and expensive cameras. The festival is great fun on a sunny Sunday afternoon if you repress the adage about trying everything once except incest or Morris dancing.
The date of the first festival, 1968, is telling. Nicolae Ceausescu was just beginning to wrap himself in the flag and emphasise the traditions of the Romanian peasantry, twenty years before he began to knock down villages to make way for agro-industrial complexes. We were back in the 1970s and you expected to see local party dignitaries in crimplene suits make speeches praising agricultural output.
This was the eve of Assumption Day. In Romania as in much of Southern Europe the Assumption of the Virgin is one of the most important days of the year. It is treated in the countryside as an unofficial holiday. The roads were full of processions, adults in full costume, and angelic girls in white as for a first Holy Communion.
People from all over the area and the two biggest processions converged on the Monastery of Moisei where Mass in the open lasted from early evening till midday. Until 1989 these processions were forbidden by the police and had to be held under cover of night but today every ex-Communist politician wants to be photographed on the Assumption at some famous monastery. Moisei was crowded with visitors and stalls selling refreshments. Long before the first procession was near the narrow road to the monastery was blocked and impassible by car.
Wooden churches are what Maramures is renowned for, with spires, steep roofs and wall paintings. I attended Mass the next morning in a Greek Catholic church in Iaud or rather in the graveyard amid hollyhocks and brightly painted crucifixes with most of the congregation. The women stood together in the front, the men together at the rear. Most of the women wore scarves and traditional blouses and skirts but there were a few in blue jeans and loose hair. Each year the numbers of the latter increase.
The priest at the close read out the names and size of the contributions made by parishioners to the cost of building the new church. (“€100 on the part of Mrs Ionela Ghica, €100 on the part of Vlad Dumitriu…”) Everywhere you go in Maramures new churches have been or are being built alongside the houses of incomers.  A few miles away an impressive Orthodox monastery complex has been built on the site of one suppressed in the eighteenth century.
Iaud is a village where half the population is Greek Catholic. The Greek Catholic rite resembles that of the Orthodox but the Greek Catholics, also known as ‘Uniates’, recognise the authority of Rome. Iaud boasts several fine wooden churches and a reputation for large families.  It seems that the inhabitants observe the Church’s teaching better than in richer parts of Europe. According to Vasile: ‘If you have three children here people think you’re impotent.’
Sighet, a pleasant Austro-Hungarian town a mile from the Ukrainian border, houses the infamous prison where after the Communist takeover the leading politicians and opinion-formers were incarcerated, tortured and in many cases killed. Today the prison is a well-designed museum that explains the Stalin era. When I visited the museum had plenty of customers. Children ran around noisily. I got a slight sense in the exercise yard of the horrors of the recent past, I stood in the little cell in which democrat Iuliu Maniu had died and I went out. I was pleased that President Ion Iliescu, a leading member of the Communist Party’s youth wing during the years when the prison was busiest, had not been to see it.
Vasile told me that the secret of a happy life is preserving tradition. ‘You have to change but you should keep the traditions.’ I thought of life in London where traditions have been dissolved by affluence, technology, pop culture and multiculturalism. In the Maramures past and present are seamless, the existence of God is assumed rather like the sun rising each morning, neighbours know everything about each other and no man is an island.
But the numbers of cars we saw everywhere with Italian driving licenses testify to the exodus of Moreseni to work abroad. In the locality where I was staying everyone went to Northern Italy, where the discipline of Italian life was irksome but the money was very good. In other parts of the Maramures I am told everyone goes to Spain. Maramures is beautiful but desperately poor and an economic impossibility. As Vasile said to me ‘When you say agriculture you say poverty.’ Europe no longer has room for subsistence farmers and even if people like Vasile would never swap their lives for anyone else’s, his three daughters will go to college and not return to live their mother’s way of life. Vasile has no regrets. ‘They must fulfill their destiny. I hope they will return here when they are old.’
© Paul Wood 2005



This was published in Vivid in October 2005, just after the bombings on the London underground by British Muslim terrorists.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Fairies' Farewell

The Fairies' Farewell

One of my very favourite poems and also a lament for Catholic England. I thought this was a widely known anthology piece but even Amanda Craig did not know it. Nothing is well known anymore he humphed.



FAREWELL, rewards and fairies, 
Good housewives now may say, 
For now foul sluts in dairies 
Do fare as well as they. 
And though they sweep their hearths no less 
Than maids were wont to do, 
Yet who of late for cleanness 
Finds sixpence in her shoe? 

Lament, lament, old Abbeys, 
The Fairies’ lost command! 
They did but change Priests’ babies, 
But some have changed your land. 
And all your children, sprung from thence, 
Are now grown Puritans, 
Who live as Changelings ever since 
For love of your demains. 

At morning and at evening both 
You merry were and glad, 
So little care of sleep or sloth 
These pretty ladies had; 
When Tom came home from labour, 
Or Cis to milking rose, 
Then merrily went their tabor, 
And nimbly went their toes. 

Witness those rings and roundelays 
Of theirs, which yet remain, 
Were footed in Queen Mary’s days 
On many a grassy plain; 
But since of late, Elizabeth, 
And later, James came in, 
They never danced on any heath 
As when the time hath been. 

By which we note the Fairies 
Were of the old Profession. 
Their songs were ‘Ave Mary’s’, 
Their dances were Procession. 
But now, alas, they all are dead; 
Or gone beyond the seas; 
Or farther for Religion fled; 
Or else they take their ease. 

A tell-tale in their company 
They never could endure! 
And whoso kept not secretly 
Their mirth, was punished, sure; 
It was a just and Christian deed 
To pinch such black and blue. 
Oh how the commonwealth doth want 
Such Justices as you!
One of my very favourite poems and in
Richard Corbet

Human 'Rights' are far more authoritarian that I ever imagined.

A Facebook conversation which makes me see how very deeply we in the West are in trouble.


Stefanie Ricarda Roos

First day of teaching Economic, Social and Cultural Rights at European University Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder (Master Program in International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law): Great crowd of students from all over the world.


18 people like this.


Paul Wood so much of so called Human Rights are in fact restrictions on Human Rights. Cultural economic and social rights sound like restrictions on freedom to me. Anti-discrimination legislation might be a good thing for example but it restricts freedom.


Stefanie Ricarda Roos Why do you consider them to be restrictions on HRs? Only with the basic ESC rights are fulfilled, can one enjoy his or her civil and political rights. "Freedom from want" is at the root of ESC rights (see Speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt held in 1941, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948).


Paul Wood Exactly the sophistry I had in mind. On the continent there is no real tradition of freedom. Freedom from want - coined because we were allied to Stalin - is like freedom from ill health, another use of freedom. It may be good but it is not freedom. Likewise freedom means freedom not to employ people I don't like. Etc etc


Paul Wood I am bitterly sorry I did not become an academic so that I could have dedicated my life to fighting "Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. " -And you are on the Right. I read somewhere of German Christian Democrat politicians warning Muslim immigrants that acceptance of homosexuality as normal was necessary if they wanted to live in a democracy - which does not sound like Catholicism to me or freedom or democracy.

Stefanie Ricarda Roos Paul, you do not need to be an academic in order to dedicate your life to fighting ESC-Rights. Lawyers, in particular, shall devote their lifes to this end. Have a look at the following video for inspiration: http://vimeo.com/11870370

Out of the Shadows

Paul Wood You misunderstood. I wish - but am too old - that I had dedicated my life to fighting against these so called rights.


Stefanie Ricarda Roos No, no, I truly understand: back to the old categorization of freedom rights (negative rights) and claim-rights (positive rights), to distinguishing two sets of rights, and claiming that the latter (i.e. ESC-rights) are not justiciable, and are only restricting liberalism. Back to a world in which a few can live a dignified life "in freedom" whereas the majority of people do not even have the minimum needed to live a life which you can call "dignified". That has nothing to do with Marxism, communism or mis-understood socialism, but with what is at the heart of it all: human dignity.


Paul Wood By the way many of these 'rights' - really infringements on other people's freedom - originated with cultural Marxism. This might interest you. http://www.academia.org/the-origins-of-political-correctness/


Sonya Winterberg Congrats and enjoy! The Viadrina is such a great place. We should have coffee some time... :)
Monday at 22:38 · Like

Paul Wood I am not arguing that the state should not help the poor by public spending but saying that such public spending paid for from taxes is an infringement of (taxpayers' ) freedom - freedom is not the only good but it is very important and we should call things by their names. Your use of the word freedom is duplicitous and in fact Orwellian. Like lumping in freedom from worry with freedom of expression. The word freedom means now what it meant in 1800.


Gregory Fabian Mr. Wood you seem to forget that what you cynically call "sophistry" are actually international human rights treaty obligations to which states have legally bound themselves when signing and ratifying such treaties as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the European Social Charter revised. Violations of these rights with impunity, if you need to be reminded, resulted, in the worst case, in the death of and personal injury to millions of persons, damage and destruction of personal property, and the displacement of millions more in the 20th century alone. One only has to witness the exhumation of a mass grave in the Balkans, or watch a video of the aftermath of the Markale massacres in Sarajevo to realize what happens when governments do not respect, protect and fulfill human rights, and how important they are to one realizing one's full potential as a human being. These rights were enshrined to provide all persons in the state with a checklist of the minimum level of each right to which they are entitled so that all persons may know demand and defend their rights no matter who that person is and no matter what government is in power. And Mr Wood, I have dedicated my life to the implementation of those rights i.e. all human rights including civil, economic, political, social, or cultural rights. They are inseparably intertwined.

Paul Wood Nonsense not entwined at all - how can you equate forcing me not to discriminate against women or Buddhists with my freedom of speech or property rights? Alas, in fact if I argued against rights for minorities I might find myself arrested under human rights legislation. The sooner the UK resiles from the ECHR the better. International law is the great threat in our days to democracy by the way. Why shouldn’t each country decide about human rights - and everything else?

Paul Wood Whether or not it is socialism I don't pretend to know - and giving the poor decent life certainly makes the world a better place - but it is not freedom. It is restricting freedom - just be honest and clear minded that's all. Public spending on social issues is fine. All anti discrimination laws should be repealed

Sonya Winterberg Dear Mr Wood, With all due respect what you write is ideological rubbish. On the eve of WWI similar statements were made with the known consequences of the humanitarian tragedies of the 20th century. Having myself worked in places as the ones described by Gregory above, I am grateful and humbled by everyone who is working to foster and/or protect said rights.


Paul Wood All the rights we need to protect assiduously are enshrined in English Common Law or the US Constitution - what sort of right is the right to privacy or family life ?? It is you madam who are the Bismarckian. I met an English schoolmistress who was teaching Romanian children about 'human rights' - I discovered she was telling them homosexual acts were fine - a perfectly acceptable point of view but in contradiction to orthodox and catholic teaching - and she was paid by the EU! What about the rights of the children's parents who I doubt held the same views? Or of the taxpayers in Germany and UK paying for this? I believe passionately in human rights by the way - for me it is almost the most important political issue (no 2 probably) - i.e. the rights of individuals not to be bullied by the state including by ECHR judges inventing law



Gregory Fabian Mr. Wood re: "your" rights and the rights of all, two quotes and a passage. "When the rights of a few are abused, the rights of all are abused" "Injustice to anyone is injustice to everyone." ML King. Also, a passage from a fiercely nationalistic German Lutheran Minister who was a WWI war hero, on coming to his senses and realizing what was happening in his country during WWII: First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, I was not a Jew, then they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out, I was not a Communist, then they came for the trade unions, and I did not not speak out, I was not a trade unionist, then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak out, I was not a Catholic. Then they came for the homosexuals, Gypsies, disabled, etc. and I did not speak out, I was none of those. And then they came for me, and by that time, there was no one left to speak out for me.


Gregory Fabian And another quote from a man on the street in Zimbabwe when asked by a BBC reporter if he was going to vote in the elections that day. He said Yes I will try, but first I must find water for my family. Thus the exercise of the right to vote, for example, can depend on the ability to exercise another right, such as the right to water which is an integral part of the rights to health and an adequate standard of living.

Paul Wood Mr Fabian you are mixing things up. I am against all dictatorship including the dictatorship of the human rights industry , of international law and international QUANGOs. People have a right to speak, to organise politically, to be annoying, to argue that homosexual acts are wicked or that women should not go out to work or that Chinese people are inferior, to spy on their neighbours, to refuse to hire women or men or Protestants if they so choose, not to be arrested without good cause. No one has a ‘right’ to an adequate standard of living or to health (I think you mean health care) though if we are Christians we have a duty of charity to help the poor. Bismarck's Germany created the first national health service - a good thing I am sure - only because Germany did not and does not have a strong tradition of freedom. A welfare state - I believed in a limited welfare state by the way - is a good thing in small doses but a great infringement on freedom which is why when Europe was much freer - in 1900 - the idea seemed outrageous in England and the Anglo-Saxon world. The rights you talk about include both vitally important ones and the ephemeral fashions of our statist collectivist post-Christian ruling class. You are mixing freedom and equality which are always opposite poles. By the way Martin Luther King was not such an admirable figure - as well as being a very bad man in his private life he was a leftist and his legacy is this whole anti discrimination culture which we have today which so damages European traditional values and self confidence and is so opposed to freedom and traditional legal rights

Gregory Fabian Well that s a very interesting viewpoint Mr. Wood but a minority view to be sure. How does that square with the fact that the governments of approximately 160 members states of the UN out of 192 have recognized the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to health as human rights and have committed themselves to ensuring a minimum core obligation of those rights to all the people of their state and not just citizens, by signing and ratifying the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Further another 70 member states are signatories. Respect for human rights is an integral concept within the rule of law. Shall we advocate to disregard one of the most important tenets of the rule of law? Please Mr. Wood I have more than enough work with governments who deny rights.

Paul Wood We shall not agree. Very few members of the UN if any really respect rights or freedoms any more. I feel Europe which in the 19th century was free is much less so now. Lawyers by the way are not good at arguing from first principles. I do not share your respect for the UN run by dreadful governments, crooks and despots. You convince me that the human rights industry is much more authoritarian than I had feared. I hope the UK gets out of the dreadfully authoritarian ECHR which we should never have signed. There was talk in 2005 that we would had the Conservatives won the election.

Paul Wood The UN would like to make 'reproductive rights' human rights -  abortion. So much for Christianity Judaism and Islam.

Gregory Fabian And re: your opinion on discrimination. I have seen discrimination left unchecked for generations tear apart the very fabric of society in Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina where I lived and worked for a combination of nine years from 200 to 2009. To deny the importance of proactively combating discrimination is to allow conditions to exist which promote conflict, because discrimination is a root cause of conflict. Thus the quality of life for us all is proportionate to how we treat those who are different, and how we recognize the dignity and worth of the human person. And while discrimination occurs in all societies certain countries deny its existence. Others, instead of denying it, admit that they have it, and they take proactive measures to eliminate it as they are also required to do under the UN Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination among other international documents. That is why Europe is so far ahead of other regions in the world in the advancement of its anti discrimination laws and standards. I am now living permanently in Slovakia again where I previously worked from 93 to 2000, and I am trying to get the non Roma community to understand that discrimination against the Roma community is one of the most serious social and economic problems they have, and that if it is not addressed, it can become a security issue for all, and not just the Roma community, as the lessons of the Balkan Wars of the 90s teach us. And while there may not be a tradition of inter ethnic wars in central Europe, there certainly is always the threat of civil unrest, leading to violence and even terrorist acts. That is why it is vitally important to deal with the problems that Roma face, as opposed to the Roma problem as it is so often characterized. In the US the anti slavery clause was eliminated at the last minute from the Declaration of Independence to appease the Southern States but John Adams the Declaration s chief proponent very reluctantly consented with the warning that the US will have problems one hundred years hence and his prophesy was sadly correct. The US had a civil war that almost destroyed the country. And finally, 100 years after that War the US enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which actually began to address the root causes of discrimination and gave persons remedies against it. It is an example of what happens when discrimination is not addressed in the first instance.


Gregory Fabian And finally, on authoritarianism, my experience working in human rights against Vladimir Meciar, an authoritarian strongman in Slovakia from 93 to 98 is that it is characteristic of authoritarians to accuse their perceived enemies of the sins that they are the most guilty of. Good day.


Paul Wood there may not be a tradition of inter ethnic wars in central Europe? What about in the 20th century? I do not like discrimination against people on the grounds of race at all but discrimination in other areas is first unobjectionable (or sometimes desirable) and second none of the state's business. And what is discrimination but another word for hierarchy? I am sure you mean well but the current anti discrimination ideology which along with welfare has taken the place of religion in the West reduces freedom, disrupts tradition and has led to unhappy social changes in the role of women, in family life, sexual morality even. Slavery is not good but the North was not justified in going to war over it but this is a footnote. The Civil Rights Act has led to dreadful restrictions on freedom and the current nervous breakdown Americans have over race. The result is that we in the West no longer have faith in our traditions - which children are taught are oppressive rather than glorious - and that is fatal. Gypsies must save themselves with help from churches and NGOs not from the state. Maybe Slovakia's  problem is it is being corrupted by PC ideas feminism consumerism and atheistic modern pop culture. You see why I feel sad that I did not become an academic and argue for these ideas which I consider basic to civilization? I respect your views but strongly think you are mistaken.

O tempora , o mores: what would Juvenal have made of Sally Bercow's sex toy?

I am having the experience people said they had when Diana died and the English went wild with grief, that they no longer recognised their country. This is worthy of Juvenal.

Quentin Letts today in the Daily Mail:


Asked by 'Total Politics' magazine to name her favourite gadget, she did not, as some might have done, mention the Corby trouser press or the Teasmade.
She opted for a certain type of battery-operated sex toy. Classy.


Michael Wharton could not have invented it (and anyway would have considered it much too rude for a family newspaper). Selwyn Lloyd and George Thomas, unmarried men, are spinning in their graves.