Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Silence of Colonel Bramble

I was a very bookish child and my parents worried that I would live life at second-hand. I wonder if I did. Anyhow, when I was fourteen one of my favourite books was The Silence of Colonel Bramble, a very funny and charming book, or so I thought when I was 14. It is one of only two or three books that I tried to read in French. Now when I mention André Maurois people correct me and say you mean Andre Malraux. 

I have just found it on the net and recommend it to you. Dipping into it, its charm has not diminished for me.

' We are a curious nation," said Major Parker. ' To interest a Frenchman in a boxing match you must tell him that his national honour is at stake. To interest an English- man in a war you need only suggest that it is a kind of a boxing match. Tell us that the Hun is a barbarian, we agree politely, but tell us that he is a bad sportsman and you rouse the British Empire." 
" It is the Hun's fault," said the colonel sadly, " that war is no longer a gentleman's game." 
" We never imagined," continued the major, " that such cads existed. Bombing open towns is nearly as unpardonable as fishing for trout with a worm, or shooting a fox." 
"You must not exaggerate, Parker," said the colonel calmly. * They are not as bad as that yet." 
 " But don't you find yourself, Aurelle," went on Major Parker, " that intelligence is over-estimated with you? It is certainly more useful to know how to box than how to write. You would like Eton to go in for noth- ing but learning? It is just like asking a trainer of racehorses to be interested in circus horses. We don't go to school to learn, but to be soaked in the prejudices of our class, without which we should be useless and unhappy. We are like the young Persians Herodotus talks about, who up to the age of twenty only learnt three sciences: to ride, to shoot and to tell the truth."  

"That may be' said Aurelle, "but just see, major, how inconsistent you are. You despise learning and you quote Herodotus. Better still, I caught you the other day in the act of reading a translation of Xenophon in your dug-out. "

A wonderful funny and inspiring book and a handbook for how England should be.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Me nationalism

I met a very nice Hungarian in Mercurea Ciuc who told me his two names were both Hungarian warrior names (one was Levente, the other I forget). I asked him if he were therefore a Hungarian nationalist and he said, 'No. I am a me nationalist, a me and the

The Bucharest I love

Bucharest used to be mostly shops like this fifteen years ago. I have watched the advance of progress here with dismay. Acknowledgements to Bucurest Saizecist and Bucuresti Realist, whose wonderful page I recommend.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Pasajul Englez

Oddly, a couple of hours after seeing this picture on the Bucharest Realist Facebook page and hearing of Pasajul Englez, I accidentally found and walked down Pasajul Englez  - for

Thursday, 14 November 2013


"I've come here more times as prime minister than I've been anywhere other than Belgium." 
- David Cameron , New Delhi , November, 2013 ...

" ... if India should go ... England, from having been the arbiter, would sink into the inglorious playground of the world. Wondering pilgrims would come to see us just as they climb the Acropolis or inspect the Nile... A congested population would lead a sordid existence with no outlet for its overflow, no markets for its manufactures ... swallowed up in a whirlpool of American cosmopolitanism ... our aspirations defined only by a narrow and selfish materialism ... England would become a sort of glorified Belgium."

- Lord Curzon , Birmingham, December, 1907 ...

"In the seventies we tried being Belgium and we didn't like it."

Julie Burchill, sometime in the 1980s

(Acknowledgments to Julian Craig for bringing the first two quotations to my attention.)

Friday, 8 November 2013

Today is St Michael and St Gabriel's Day in the Orthodox calendar

Image result for mihai gavril

King Michael celebrates his saint's day today. O good old man, how well in thee appears the constant service of the antique world. La mulţi ani, Majestate!

Some poet (a modern, was it Robert Graves?) wrote something about deposed kings with faces seen on much used coins, almost rubbed out, or something.

Today, along with their King, Romanians celebrate angels. Many happy returns of SS Michael and Gabriel's Day to your Majesty and all Mihaelas, Mihailas, Mihais, Gabriels and Gabrielas.

Like last year I have been too lazy to write anything but for details of Romanian traditions about this day click here. The Mihais, Mihailas and Gabis I spoke to had not heard of any of these traditions. But it is a joy to live in a country where saints' days are universally celebrated, even by atheists. Romania is in so many ways more civilised than England.

Archangels and angels are not given very much attention these days by the devout in post-Protestant countries like England or America (one exception is this book by Dr. Martin Israel), but in late antiquity they were very much venerated and still are by Romanians, who understand that religion is about the supernatural.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

A mystic solidarity with the land of one’s birth

I just found this quotation from Mircea Eliade. This is probably from his semi-fascist early phase but still it is good.

“Until recently there persisted among Europeans the obscure awareness of a mystic solidarity with the land of one’s birth. It was not a commonplace love of

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Sweden and the decline of the West

On October 1, four candidates to be Archbishop of Uppsala, the highest position in the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden, were interviewed by church officials in front of the media and, among other questions, were asked, “Does Jesus provide a truer picture of God than Muhammad?” Only one of the candidates said that He does. (This candidate came second.)
The woman who got the job, Antje Jackelén, answered:
“One cannot reduce the whole of religious theology, that is to say the question of how different religions relate to one another, to a yes-and-no question. It
amounts to doing violence to a wealth of knowledge and experience that can be found there.”
I would have thought the question could easily have been answered skirting the subject of Muhammad altogether and talking about the divinity of Jesus. Even Hans Kung would agree that Jesus is essential to salvation.

The Archbishop-elect of Uppsala is not to be confused with the Bishop of Stockholm, who is a lesbian, lives with her woman priest partner and is the world's first openly active
homosexual bishop. I am not making this up.

As it happens, I saw my first ever woman priest in 2007 in Stockholm Cathedral. It was a surprise to see a woman priest but I was astonished to see that she was an absolutely beautiful blonde. I hadn't expected that. This seems to me an additional reason to think women cannot be clergy. However, women have been ordained in the Swedish state church for fifty years.

Despite its strongly feminist public culture, Sweden, once a very law-abiding country, has the worst rape figures in Europe. Many rapes are committed by immigrants. The conservative Norwegian blogger Fjordman wrote this very interesting essay, which deserves reading, on the subject of Swedish attitudes to what I call sex but is now called gender.

A day after writing this comes fresh news from Sweden: they are going to introduce ratings to warn about sexism in films.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

The Wrong Box

Which is the funniest book of all time in your opinion? 

It might be Decline and Fall, Scoop or A Handful of Dust but it might be this unjustly obscure (and oddly modern) masterpiece by Robert Louis Stevenson and his stepson.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Hallowe'en - and vampires - in Romania

Hallowe'en is an ancient Catholic tradition but now just an excuse to make money and for American cultural imperialism. But whatever you think of it, it has an apostrophe in it, people.

This is what I wrote last year about Hallowe'en in Romania.

This, on the subject of real-life vampires, of whom I have known two or three in Romania, might also be of interest.

Catholics celebrate the unknown saints in heaven on All Saints' Day, November 1. The Secklers in Harghita and Covasna, who are Catholics, on this day dress the tombs of their family members and gather at them with candles - it is a very big occasion. On the eve of All Saints - Hallowe'en - the souls of the dead who are in Purgatory are said by tradition to haunt the earth.

This explains Hallowe'en's Catholic origins and why Protestants don't like it.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

A weekend in the Secklerland

No-one knows what these paintings on the church tower at Csikrakos (Racu) mean. The tower is said to have been built in 1080 though no-one is sure. The most recent theory is that the paintings derive from the pre-Christian religion of the Hungarians and their close cousins the Secklers. Without examining the evidence one just knows this explanation is

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Our Man in Havana

This was first published in Vivid in 2004.

Life in Bucharest has been transformed since the bloody events of December 1989 but three large apartments in a 1960s block in Mihai Eminescu have escaped the changes. Marked only by a discreet  flag and a yawning squaddie on guard they house the Cuban Embassy, a serene place where nothing much has altered since Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania were friendly socialist countries. I was received there recently with

Sunday, 20 October 2013

The strange charm of dereliction

Museum of Archaeology "Vasile Pārvan"

I published this deeply irresponsible article in the Bucharest Daily News back in 2005 and it was and is a cri de coeur. Someone pointed out that it was printed next to a worthy article calling for more investment in infrastructure, by my friend, Dan Visoiu. It is a synopsis in one page of the book I am writing about the Paris of the East.
"Bucharest has a lot to do in order to become a city worthy of the status of a European capital." 
This headmasterly admonishment was made by Jonathan Scheele, the soft-spoken British civil servant who heads the European Commission Delegation in Romania, at last week's "Investment Opportunities in Bucharest" conference.

Am I alone in dreading the day when Bucharest becomes worthy of the status of a European capital? To my mind it's the nicest European capital because it is unworthy of Mr Scheele's esteem. What other capital in Europe is nearly so unself-conscious, so unlike the
rest, so full of energy and shadows and yes so un-European, despite the satanic malls, hypermarkets, highly paid foreign consultants and other horrors of democracy? I know the streets become unfordable rivers when it rains. I know I should be pleased when the
potholes and the broken pavements are renewed with EU pre-accession funding but I am not. Irresponsibly I am elated by a beauty I find in the dereliction and have been since my first visit in 1990.

The wooden Ottoman Bucharest of 1830 where the men wore turbans and kaftans was rebuilt in the late nineteenth century in stucco and brick, its architects paying homage to Paris and an imaginary Orient at the same time. Later came Art Deco buildings that are unequalled anywhere in Europe. Bucharest was up to the minute in architectural terms before the war and ahead of for example Paris herself. But the faux-French surface of Carol I's Bucharest has been badly cracked over the last sixty years.

Nothing in this city apart from a score of churches is old but those parts that escaped the 1980s rebuilding feel more than half as old as time. I haven't passed the Museum of Archaeology for a couple of years ago but then behind its padlocked iron gates half-lost amid tall grass stood a long row of Roman tombs and statues, protected from the rain by a rotting eave. It seemed to me whenever I passed as if the Museum itself were becoming an archaeological object and I were the archaeologist stumbling across it for the first time.

The decrepit fin de siecle villas and filthy Art Deco masterpieces are becoming one by one a real estate broker's dream of avarice as they are painted and varnished to look the way they originally looked. But for me at least the ramshackle way the streets look now, especially under a melancholy November sky, has a greater beauty than when they are new and shiny.

The old town when I moved there five years ago was not a museum but a slum and the one part of Bucharest where you felt you were in the Near East. The gypsies were part of the reason but it went deeper than than. Now especially that it has been pedestrianised it is on the way to being a complex of restaurants and antique shops. When Bucharest starts receiving tourists in numbers it will go the unauthentic way of the historic centre in every other European capital.

Dirty, disreputable, frivolous but gloomy, full of laughter and misery, mercenary and mystical, improvised, exasperating and serendipitous, Bucharest is a city which either repels you or steals your heart. The kiosks which made a Bangladeshi friend of mine compare Bucharest to Dakar have been eliminated at Mr. Basescu's command. So have the packs of occasionally ferocious stray dogs but it will be fifteen or twenty years before Bucharest ceases to feel Third World. When it does will it have become almost as dull as Athens? Very possibly but let us hope if Bucharest must emulate European cities she can become not Athens but Naples.

But one problem cannot wait fifteen years and cannot be romanticised away. The gridlock in the centre of the city gets worse at a tempo so fast that the deterioration can be observed on a weekly basis. Road-widening and road-building unless very sensitive to the city's architectural heritage will destroy Bucharest's semi-rustic character. What after all is the northern stretch of Calea Victoriei than a country lane? Luckily the solution to the traffic problem is easy. Charge motorists for entering the city centre between 8-6 weekdays and encourage Bucuresteni back to their city's excellent public transport system. It worked in London and would work here. Does any politician have the courage to adopt this idea? Mr. Scheele, what do you say?

Saturday, 19 October 2013

The sexual revolution in Iran, Romania and Northern Ireland

This is a very interesting article on sex in Iran, by Afshin Shahi in Foreign Policy. It shows how very Westernised Persians are, thanks, I suppose, to the Shahs. 
It reminds me too that the sexual revolution in the 1960s permeated the Iron Curtain and reached even faraway Bucharest. Though other aspects of the 1960s social revolution did not, for which I am pretty thankful. 
It may be too that sex before marriage is a political gesture in Iran. Irish Catholic girls in the 1980s told me Ulster Protestant girls slept around because they read The Sun and, as Unionists, wanted to resemble girls on the mainland.

A wise thing on the subject of the sexual revolution was said by Dorothy Day, the Communist activist who converted to Catholicism. 
The Sexual Revolution is a complete rebellion against authority, natural and supernatural, even against the body and its needs, its natural functions of child bearing. This is not reverence for life, it is a great denial and more resembles Nihilism than the revolution that they think they are furthering.
This seems to me to be true and to apply, among other things, to homosexual marriage.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Ireland, a poor, half-witted, gypsy relative of England

I just came across this brilliant remark about Ireland by Hugh Trevor-Roper, thanks to Henry Hopgood-Phillips. I love it though though I know Trevor-Roper was that most objectionable thing, a Protestant atheist.
'Through all our history she clings to us, a poor, half-witted, gypsy relative, defying our improvement, spoiling our appearances, exposing our pretences, an irredeemable, irrepressible slut, dirty when we are most clean, superstitious when we are most rational, protesting when we are most complacent, and when we are most prosaic, inspired'.

Romanians at work

This article first appeared in Vivid magazine in 2003 and the world it describes has changed enormously, but not completely beyond recognition. 

Romanians have spent thirteen difficult years of transition “encamped like bewilderedtravellers in a garish  and unrestful hotel” in the phrase of Joseph

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

'That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time'

John Stuart Mill

That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time.

Ronald Firbank 

`O, help me heaven,' she prayed,`to be decorative and to do right.'

'The life of nations, no less than the life of men, is lived largely in the imagination'

Roger Scruton
The fact is that the people of Europe are losing their homelands, and therefore losing their place in the world. I don’t envisage the Tiber one day foaming with much blood, nor do I see it blushing as the voice of the muezzin sounds from the former cathedral of St. Peter. But the city through which the Tiber flows will one day cease to be Italian, and all the expectations of its former residents, whether political, social, cultural, or personal, will suffer a violent upheaval, with results every bit as interesting as those that Powell prophesied. 

Charles Moore

All this [mass immigration] need not be a total disaster. It is possible, though hard, to forge a United Kingdom made up of many ethnicities. Leaders like Mr Cameron are right to try to insist on common standards and better rules, rather than to despair. But whatever it

Sunday, 29 September 2013

The slave trade 'rescued slaves from night-black Africa'

It is clear that there are certain people who are free and certain who are slaves by nature, and it is both to their advantage, and just, for them to be slaves. Aristotle

Embedded image permalink
A former slave named Gordon shows his whipping scars. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1863

It would be very interesting and perilous to write the history of the Africans in North America from an objective point of view. 

Slavery, as opposed to serfdom, faded out in Europe by the 12th century and was abolished by the British Empire in 1833 - other countries following us. Outside Europe, slavery had always existed and was probably justifiable in prehistoric times and in primitive tribal societies. Life in such societies was, in any case, nasty, brutish and frequently short.  

Slavery is in the forefront of people's minds these days not because it was a cruel institution, but because it was an example of white people exploiting brown ones. We hear less about the African slaves owned and traded by Arabs. We hear next to nothing about the 23 million Russian serfs, one-third of the Russian population, who greatly outnumbered the fewer than four million American slaves and who were freed in 1861 by Czar Alexander II. 

At school we might have heard of the English thralls, including those enslaved by the pagan Danes, but one rarely hears of the white slaves captured by the Barbary pirates, or of slavery in India or China. Slavery in China was abolished in 1909 but continued until 1949 under the Nationalists. Under Chinese Communism it continues to this day, of course - the slaves are nowadays prisoners. In its more traditional form, slavery continues in Mali and other parts of Muslim Africa.


Slavery is therefore not something for which only Europeans, and in particular the British and Americans, are to be blamed. On the contrary, Europeans, in particular the British and to a lesser extent the Americans, can be credited with its abolition.

However terrible slavery in the Americas was, and it certainly very often was (as was serfdom in Europe), slavery was an African institution, as it was an institution in most primitive societies, which whites adopted. The African slaves were enslaved by other Africans, who sold some of the slaves to white men. 

Slavery is barbaric, but it brought African slaves to civilisation, as a very good interview with the (black) Governor-General of Jamaica in the Spectator reminds us.  I cannot forbear to quote a few lines from it:
As we waited for the tea, Cooke began to speak in patriotic terms of Jamaica as a colony of "marvellous antiquity", far older even than British India or Australia. 
"Now hear me on this. When Australia was just a convict settlement, Jamaica was an established outpost of British commerce and British civilisation. "Civilisation? "Yes," he replied. "Even during slavery the British were sending some very good people out to Jamaica . . . missionaries, reformers . . . but, as I said, to Australia, just convicts." 
"But Jamaica was a brutal place . . . the plantation," I said. 
Cooke was not going to condone slavery, was he? 
"Well, neither am I going to harp on about the wickedness of slavery. Jamaica's greatness was due entirely to slavery." 
Yes, the iniquities; yes, the horrors; but slavery, for all its manifest brutality, had rescued Cooke and his forebears from "night-black" Africa and shown them "true" (that is, British) civilisation.
Sir Howard Cooke is a British patriot to put both the BNP and British intellectuals to shame.

An interesting proof of the civilising effects of slavery is that the freed American slaves who settled Liberia did not intermarry with the natives but treated them as coolies and regarded themselves as representatives of a higher civilisation, which of course they were. I remember people wrote about Liberia as the first free black African country, when it was in fact the last colony. The rule of the 'Americo-Liberians', the black colonists, was only ended in 1980, by a military coup.

I once outraged a liberal Anglican parson friend of mine, who was a very intelligent trained philosopher, when I suggested slavery was a relative rather than an absolute evil. He congratulated himself that he did not think like this, but I have never known how Christians can square the idea of slavery as an absolute evil with the fact that the Old Testament takes it for granted and approves of it. I recently came across, thanks to Mr. Valentin Dimitrov, this very interesting explanation of why slavery might have been morally acceptable in the time of King David and later but not in America in the 18th or 19th centuries. 

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Bishop Spong and the death of God

I came across these insightful words by John Shelby Spong, about priests facing the congregation, which seem accurate. Spong is the wildly liberal bishop of the Episcopalian Church in the U.S.A. 

"This shift has become almost universal in liturgical churches over the last fifty years. Though it seems a minor change and has been defended by proponents in a variety of ways, it signifies to me the gradual realization of the death of theism. The priest or pastor with his or her back to the people is addressing the

Saturday, 21 September 2013

The Prince of Wales is now the oldest heir to the throne since the Electress Sophia

21 September, 2013

HRH the Prince of Wales was already the heir to the throne who has remained heir apparent the longest. Today he passes the age when King William IV ascended the throne. He was 64 years, 10 months and 5 days old when he became King. He had been heir presumptive to his brother, King George IV (William was heir presumptive not heir apparent because the elderly King George IV could theoretically have married and fathered a child, who would have inherited the throne). 

Prince Charles will be, God willing, the oldest king in our history to ascend the throne. He is the oldest immediate heir to the throne for almost 300 years. 

The one older immediate heir to the throne was the Electress Sophia of Hanover, who died, aged 83, in 1714. after running to escape a shower of rain. (Sophia, of course, has a long 'i' - to rhyme with 'via'.) Queen Anne died a few weeks later at the age of 49 and Sophia's son became King George I. Or the usurper, George of Hanover, if you are a Jacobite. 

Sophia, who never visited England, was the daughter of Elizabeth Stuart, James VI and I's daughter, who was for a few months the famous Winter Queen of Bohemia. The Electress Sophia, unlike her royal descendants, who have been singularly philistine (the present Prince of Wales is the first exception), was a woman of culture and erudition. She was a good friend of Liebnitz, with whom she corresponded. Like Jeeves, her favourite author was Spinoza.

There are some English people who say they have nothing against the royal family as people (how could they have?) - it's the idea of a hereditary unelected monarchy that they hate. I, on the other hand, am not interested in the members of the royal family, only in the institution, in the idea of inheritance, a line that goes back to King Edgar and before that to the men in skins who founded Wessex. 

But I make an exception for the Prince of Wales, whom I have come to love as I have watched him grow out of his long drawn-out and gawky hobbledehoyhood to become the eccentric toff he is today. I suppose being married to a woman with borderline disorder tried him in the fire. He is the Grand Young Fogey, fussing over traditional architecture and the countryside and wanting to reintroduce mutton to England's tables. Not by coincidence does he love Romania so much, as do many foreigners who feel out of place in the modern world. Some have even suggested he should be made King of Romania but Romania has a very good king already. 

The Prince is, by the way, a collateral descendant of Vlad Țepeș and is said to be  a direct descendant of, among many other illustrious men, the Prophet Mahomet, through Peter the Cruel of Portugal, though doubt has been cast on this.

I think the Prince of Wales is one of the best dressed man in the world but his good taste is not innate. At Cambridge he wanted a suit with horizontal stripes but was dissuaded by his tailor. Actually it might not have been a bad joke, but I don't think the Prince was the man to carry it off.

Second-hand bookshops weaned me

I always loved second-hand bookshops above all things - they were my true alma mater, not my university. But now I see that old books are also the last bastions of freedom of speech.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Quirimba diary

In Zanzibar they advertise Sunset Dhow Rides for tourists and this will be the fate of Ibo, but at the moment there are just teenage boys who come to the Miti Miwiri offering to guide us across the mangrove swamp at low tide to the next island, Quirimba, and bring us
back by boat at high tide. 

One boy suggested this to us, for a reasonable price and we agreed, but he was undercut a moment later by Ibrahim who offered to do take us for whatever we wanted to pay.  He seemed a more enjoyable companion, so my Austrian friends decided to go with him. The first boy was very angry and the next day went to the police to lodge a complaint against the Austrians and the police called on the Miti twice while we were away. I didn’t hear
the end of that story. They were looking for 'a German woman', so the trail was not very hot.

I do not ask enough questions. The walk turned out to take three hours. The mangrove swamps at low tide are a very slithery labyrinth and most of the time we were knee deep in water. It was an interesting walk, fun, but it was not too soon that we came to the open seabed.

As we walked across the seabed the island came into view. Cerulean sky, strange trees, wooden boats on the beach. I suppose one of the most beautiful places I ever saw. And then we saw a Land Rover pull up across on the island, timed perfectly, and one of us said that Johannes has arrived. And so he had. And that meant, after three hours hard walking, that there would be coffee. Good coffee too, because grown locally.

The Portuguese must have felt as if they had found a new planet when they first landed in Africa. When they disembarked at Quirimba they found an important trading post, governed by the Arabs. Perhaps it had been held by the Arabs since the twelfth century, perhaps earlier. Quirimba has not changed very much in eight centuries, although the Arabs are long gone and the Portuguese Empire is gone too. The most important changes, after the conversion of the natives to Islam, probably took place after Mozambique became Communist in 1975: it now has a school, some modern medicine and the people mostly wear flip-flops. The island today has a population of four thousand blacks and two Germans, Johannes and his sister, both in their late fifties. 

Johannes drove us through an Anglo-Saxon village. Huts. A forge.  One man was dressed in scarlet robes and was, Johannes told us, the Muslim priest. Johannes and he are foes. According to Johannes, the priest battens off the villagers and manipulates them to do what he wants,  'because he is slightly more intelligent than they are'.  

Soon we were in their house, being offered brandy, wine or beer – I took local coffee, which tasted good – and Johannes told us his story, which fascinated me.

He and his sister were I suppose among the last survivors of Germany's African empire, which was created by Bismarck and conquered by the British during the First World War, though I know there are some (often very right-wing) Germans in Namibia. I wonder if there are any in Tanzania. These two spoke German, according to the Austrians, of  a dated 19th century kind. They are  German citizens but, until their fifties, neither had been to Germany. Contemporary Berlin was a surprise.

I liked Johannes, a very emotional man, who was dedicating himself to keeping up a tradition that deserved to be kept up and keeping seventy villagers employed. He drank brandy in the morning and smoked hard, which made me feel relaxed in his company. Perhaps he is a Joseph Conrad character. 

Their grandfather had lived in Tanganyika  and, wanting to return to Africa after the Great War, had landed a job in Uganda. One day he decided to leave, ‘took two boys with him’ and began to walk. He walked until he came to Ibo, where he settled. He founded the coconut farm.

At first I thought the Germans were a couple but they were brother and sister and brothers and sisters never grow up in one another’s  eyes and bring out the child in each other. They left the island for South Africa at the age of six but his daughter came back to nurse her father in his last illness and the brother and sister sold their businesses in Johannesburg and came back here six years ago. Things are worse for the blacks they say than in the Portuguese times. Witches from the mainland, whom the Portuguese would never have tolerated, come to the island and con the villagers into paying for potions and spells. One witch conned a man out of his life savings and then gave him a medicine that killed him. I wonder what sort of savings the unfortunate man had.

Johannes does not have a permit for paying guests but they are allowed to have friends to stay. I am tempted to return. With many books on a kindle. No internet.

Do they have any hunting? 
'Only monkeys.' 
Monkeys were everywhere on the island, slipping from trees like small, bald old men.

Johannes took us on a tour but we were pressed for time. He showed us how coconuts are processed. He is busy planting trees, which will take fifteen years to yield useful fruit and have a life expectancy of seventy years. Many trees planted by his grandfather are dying now.  In the coconut warehouse I noticed an odd device made of wood – it was a bow and arrow. The guards use them to keep thieves away and for shooting monkeys. 'I hope they do not kill any people with them', I said. ‘Oh no. Not for twenty years’, Johannes answered airily.

Then he brought us to quite the most wonderful white beach, green turquoise water and one or two children. Reader, if deserted beaches are your thing - but no bars or restaurants - then Quirimba may be for you.

Then back to the house, a coconut curry and much South African wine and we heard more of their story. When the two give up the farm the sister's children will not take it on. They have left Johannesburg for the suburbs of Birmingham and do not want to return to Africa. She said she loves Birmingham. I have always intended not to visit Johannesburg but, hearing that, the picture I had of Jo’burg darkened. 

She said that she had been surprised at how many white people live in Birmingham and told terrible stories of savage murders and rapes in South Africa. These crimes are not racist it seems, just crimes. If whites are often victims it is because they have more stuff. I can see why Quirimba is an attractive alternative.

We could have spent much longer on the island but the tide was high and we had to go. Instead of a three hour walk our dhow ride took an hour and a half through the labyrinthine channels between the mangroves, as darkness fell.  Utter beauty and silence except for the splash of waves and sound of birds.

We had not agreed a price - it was left up to us to give what we thought the day was worth.  We paid $60. We were five so it came to twelve dollars each. Ibrahim, a nice boy, seemed very satisfied. It's a monthly wage in Mozambique.

I wish I were back there now.

For the next stage in my journey, click here,

Friday, 13 September 2013

Second-hand bookshops weaned me

I always loved second-hand bookshops above all things - they were my true alma mater, not my university. But now I see that they are also the last bastions of freedom of speech.

The Bible and Shakespeare would not be published by any publishing house today if they were newly written. Dante consigns Mahomet to Hell, Chaucer is homophobic, Macaulay's opinion of Indians would not be printable, though he liked them, and as for Schopenhauer's views on women, well...

The Bible and all old books and the common law, which is a tradition that goes back to an earlier, era, will increasingly be what keeps freedom of thought alive. Second-hand bookshops are to our age what the monasteries, where monks copied Latin manuscripts, were to the Dark Ages.

The Middle East DOES NOT MATTER, people!

Syria is a proxy war between Iran and Russia on the one hand and America, Saudi Arabia and Israel on the other. Russia and America alike are actuated by a mixture of healthy national egoism and some principles. Israel thinks that a victory for Assad in Syria will endanger Israel's security more than a failed state on her borders much of it ran by  Al Qaeda. Israel probably knows her interests best but it seems to me that for the rest of us the status quo ante is much preferable - a strong (very bad) man in Syria, allied to Iran and Hezbollah, but keeping order, operating a secular state and protecting Christians, Druse and other minorities. Though of course a complete victory for the Assad regime is, I imagine, very unlikely and the cantonisation of Syria, with the regime in place in Damascus, Aleppo and the coast, is the nearest to victory that the regime can achieve. 

Israel's security is not the most pressing concern for me but I think Israel has lived with the Assads for a long time and does not have nearly so much to fear from them as from chaos. Israel, however, fears Iran.

By the way, Putin suppressed Chechnya with extreme brutality - and 100,000 or 200,000 dead. Putin made a desert and called it peace. Still it worked and might work in Syria - but Assad and Putin are on a par when it comes to respect for human rights. And many of their enemies are just as cruel as they are.

What is clear, even to an imperialist like me, is that most of the problems in the Middle East stem from Western interference, from the Franco-British conquest of the region during the Great War and the Balfour Declaration to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the intervention in Libya last year. The people of the Middle East want to be left alone by us and we should leave them alone. 

It also seems to me that we should realise that the Middle East is a charming, picturesque area of no real importance. A bit like the Balkans up to 1914. Please read Edward Luttwak's brilliant explanation of why this is so. 

Professor Luttwak, by the way, is a Jew from Arad. He talked about the subject of Syria a few months ago and spoke much sense.

'The United States has other new responsibilities: To respond effectively to a rising China, it is essential to disengage from the futile pursuit of stability in North Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. Their endless crises capture far too much policy attention and generate pressures for extremely costly military interventions that increase rather than reduce terrorist violence.' 

Yes. Where I disagree with with him is where, more recently, he said that prolonged war in Syria was the best outcome and would weaken and tie down both Iran and Al Qaeda. Apart from the inhumanity of this, I am not convinced that a limited victory for Assad, and by extension Iran, would do any harm to US or Western interests. This seems to contradict his thesis that the West has no important interest in the Middle East. 

I thought these words were thought-provoking. 
One is tempted to explain the common fate of these exceedingly different countries by invoking the role of Islam in politics. Islam may well preclude democracy -- to cite Turkey as the counterexample is perverse, for doing so ignores that the country was founded by an authoritarian as a secular state, which its current Islamist rulers are eroding day by day. But there is no reason to trip over the vast problems of contemporary Islam, because the economic level of the populations in these North African states would not support effective democratic governance anyway.The Arab Spring has indeed been consequential in awakening populations from passivity. But this merely precludes dictatorial rule, even while these countries' fundamental conditions continue to preclude democracy.Only varieties of anarchy remain. 

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Vladimir Putin master class

Vladimir Putin (whom I do not like in general) is giving Mr. Obama a master class in how to conduct foreign policy. Even the ranks of Tuscany in America (liberals and conservatives and Mr. Obama, though not Mr. Kerry or the State Department) can scarce forbear to cheer. 
An American surgical strike like Reagan's bombing of Tripoli might have been a good idea - without any need for allies like England or France - but my fear is it would have helped defeat Assad and thus helped Al Qaeda. Reagan after all was trying to kill Gadaffi. That would have been regime change (and assassinations, by the way, were against U.S. law). But today America looks ridiculous and weak. As under Bush and let's remember how very much worse he was than Obama. America is in decline, tragically. Henry Kissinger thinks the US must make a short sharp limited intervention. I think we should have negotiations between Syria, the rebels, Iran, the Saudis, Russia, America, France.

But what a disaster for America this is. Another milestone in her decline. Assad, like the other players in the game, only understands force. He was frightened the USA would try to kill him or overthrow him but now he thinks he is safe. Gestures about chemical weapons are not his language.

I wonder if the USA should leave Iran, Israel and the Saudis to squabble and detach from the Middle East? I suppose this is what Mr. Obama has been trying to do?

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Somewhere in the Old Testament there is a reference to someone urinating on the ground. One American translation of the Bible says 'he went to the bathroom'. How wonderful Americans are for making us feel so superior.

I very rarely unfriend people but I thought this post merited unfriending. Why are so many Americans insane? I suppose it is also true that they are often very ignorant of the outside world and this, I consider, is one of their great strengths.

Liberals should be tolerant, broad-minded and open-hearted but they are so often the opposite of these things. British conservatives, on the other hand, tend to be stodgy and American conservatives, too often, are either money-minded and boring or insane.

My wall tends up to fill up with insane Americans. I just unfriended one who posted that Northern Syria should be given to Israel. One of his friends had commented, 'Amen'.
about an hour ago · Like · 4

Paul Wood British conservatives, on the other hand, tend to be stodgy and scarcely conservative at all.
about an hour ago · Like

Paul Wood Here is the post. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10201702917756834&set=a.4579710492927.21855

Monday, 12 August 2013

Ilha de Moçambique diary

The dhow caught the six o’clock tide and after a silent, pellucid journey through mangrove swamps we spent three and a half hours waiting in a bus shelter opposite a baobab tree of

Ibo diary

Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world and one of the most expensive to visit. I met lots of backpackers, whom I admired very much (they are almost the only tourists I can tolerate but they call themselves travellers), passing through Mozambique from Malawi by bus, hitch-hiking and dhow. Quite a few were young women travelling
alone. But I simply did not have time. So I paid €350 for two internal flights, one from Maputo to Pemba, the nearest town to Ibo and one from Nampula, the nearest town to Ilha de Moçambique, back to Maputo. I was outraged at this price until I was told I had done very well to get such very cheap tickets. In any case, intermittent fighting has broken out again between FRELIMO and RENAMO in central Mozambique and bussing across the country is no longer advised.

My first childhood holiday abroad was a package holiday in Ostend with a plane that left from Southend airport. In those days people of my grandmother’s generation regularly said things like  ‘Wild horses wouldn’t make me go abroad.’ Yet even though mass tourism had only ruined the Costa Brava, Costa Blanca and Algarve at that stage, I worked out while I was still a schoolboy that the only really undiscovered countries in Europe were behind the Iron Curtain. In the 1980s I wanted to visit Maoist Albania to see Europe’s only untouched coastline, but never did. Now people are travelling as far as Northern Mozambique to see untouched coastline. Southern Mozambique – from the tourist’s point of view a separate country from Northern Mozambique – is resorts for white South Africans. Most of the African coast is beach resorts. 

From Pemba there are many ways to get to the island of Ibo involving minibuses and dhows and the best way is the weekly post-boat. Drivers charge $250 even though the average monthly wage is less than $50. I again chose the easy option which cost $220 and took twenty minutes: a light plane that sailed close to lovely desert islands. My fellow travellers were three very polite and virginal French children in their mid teens, who had travelled from Johannesburg via Maputo that morning and were travelling to meet their parents in Lugenda, which I misheard as Uganda. Their well-bred innocence made the journey seem like chapter 1 of an Enid Blyton story, except that in Enid Blyton foreigners are usually smugglers or gunrunners not heroes and heroines. I felt, dear reader, as if I were in an adventure, by which word I of course have in mind the adventures Enid Blyton’s or Arthur Ransome's children have.

No one from my guest lodge was on the airstrip (a simple field) in Ibo from my hotel to meet me. Entirely my fault. I should have asked them to be. The plane deposited me on a bare field and all there was in sight apart from grass was an enormous four-by-four and a large white South African called John who offered me a lift. He gave an almost imperceptible nod to the black man beside him who took my bag. This seemed like the start of a film. Real life only seems real, for some reason, when it resembles a film or book. I wonder why.

John was retired from the travel business and helping his friend who owns the Ibo Lodge (double rooms $400 a night, all-inclusive). He said something memorable. ‘Travel is part of the entertainment business.’

The Miti Miwiri 

The Miti Miwiri on the edge of the village of Ibo on a sunny afternoon (20 degrees Celsius) – a large house built of stone and dark wood around a central courtyard – was inviting and exuded a calm welcome. Friendly guests and instant camaraderie. A lovely young man called Dimo who said Joerg the owner was away for a day shopping in Pemba. The wide terrace outside my room, overlooking the little town. A single room there  cost me $65 a night, a month's wage in Mozambique, but worth it for what turned out to be a very happy, buzzy, comfortable place, albeit without hot water.

The town is a ghost town. The guide books say that it was an important Portuguese settlement that fell into decay after the 1890s but in fact it was deserted by the Portuguese and Indians in 1975 at independence (Indians from the Portuguese enclave, Goa, colonised the Portuguese Empire just as Indians colonised the British Empire).

The long beautiful coastline that reminded me of the Danube Delta. The same detritus of plastic bottles and rubbish fringing the shore and the same broken buildings. But the Danube, though it has some wonderful desert islands, scotching hot in August too, does not have mangroves.

Ibo is eery and something about the place is unhappy, as ghost towns are. It now consists of ruined stone buildings that did not look much older than a hundred years in most cases and the straw houses where Africans live. They number about 4000. The stone houses are starting to be renovated for tourism but only a very few are so far. So this is the time to go, dear reader. 

The Quirimbas islands are a coral reef. The islands are where the coral extrudes above the surface of the ocean. Ibo is the only island that gets tourists in any numbers and the only one that gets people who do not land from planes. It does not have good swimming, not because of the coral but because it is surrounded by mangrove swamps. This adds to the impression given by the ruined buildings that I have walked into an episode of Scooby Doo. There are no particularly good beaches but the island is great for walking though I was shamefully lazy and sauntered rather than walked.

For sights it has an eighteenth century fortress and church, though Mass is rarely said these days in the church. The Africans are almost all Muslim and were fasting when I arrived for Ramadan, the Muslim equivalent of lent. Eid, the day when Ramadan ends, was much celebrated by people going from door to door dancing, singing and having too much to drink. I was invited to a lunchtime and evening party. Though even in Ramadan drinking had not been noticeable by its absence. Many Mozambiquans are alcoholics, I was told, who drink very cheap industrial alcohol. The Africans in the village seem happy and I think and was told that they are but the boredom of village life must be killing.


Of course like every good bourgeois I am looking for somewhere authentic and untouched but the sad truth is that Ibo, like Ilha, has just enough tourism to make it fun. Four places to stay plus two camp sites, four restaurants (two pretty good). The best is owned by a Frenchman called Stephan but the elegant Ibo Lodge is good too, inexpensive and  with a wonderful ocean view. The gilded people who stay at the Ibo lodge are more grown-up than the people who stay at the cheaper places and less friendly, because they had purchased an all-inclusive package holiday where luxury was they keynote, not adventure. One of them, a nervous businessman with an attractive younger wife, mentioned to me that he had a friend who owned a nearby island. This was the kind of place for married couples and possibly honeymoon couples. I had the feeling that I was in a Saint story. Why does my mind teem with such unliterary literary parallels?

The Ibo Lodge, incidentally, is by no means the most expensive hotel in the archipelago. One place costs $900 a night.

The island was crowded when I went in early August and my lodge and the Ibo lodge each had 18 guests. The island’s total tourist population probably numbered fifty or more and they were mostly friendly interesting and intelligent. Some gathered for a drink early evening in the courtyard of Miti Miwiri which felt like a subdued cocktail party. It was all instant friends and great fun, my dears, or would have been but for acute sunburn on the backs of my calves after walking for three hours across the mangrove swamps to the next island at low tide.

Two Portuguese factory managers, both born in Angola, told me that nothing had happened after the Portuguese left until Mozambique opened her economy to foreigners in recent years. This is not quite true though as under the dictatorship literacy rates were low in Metropolitan Portugal and Mozambique has registered a huge increase in literacy. A very bright Austrian couple who work for an NGO in Nampula told me that the Portuguese did nothing for the Africans. My own hunch is that the history is written by people who dislike colonialism on principle and that FRELIMO rule was a disaster for the Africans as well for the whites and Asians who fled. The Austrians said that Nampula is a key link in the heroin trail that starts in Pakistan and leads to South Africa. Much of the drugs trade goes through the hands of local Pakistani businessmen who have recently settled in Mozambique. Several people told me that the Asians are much disliked for their commercial acumen by the Africans.

Joerg, who owns half the Miti Miwiri, - he has a partner in Panama who also runs it, one year on, one year off - is a German in his late 30s, who, after ten years in investment banking decided he was not fulfilled so he got on his bike with his then girlfriend and set off across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. In Ibo in 2007, before tourism of any sort had started, although the owner of the Ibo Lodge was preparing to open and he found the place he wanted to live. He bought the title to the ruined house from an African woman who had acquired squatter's rights after the Indian owner had fled in 1975. He forgets whether he paid $1,200 or $1,500 and he had spent many happy years rebuilding the place. He now has a 'local wife' on the island and he nodded in the direction in which the Africans live. 

'He chose a good time to get out of investment banking', said my newly made backpacker friend Maeve, who will be starting work in a bank in Munich in a few short weeks.

I know I have quoted this before but these lines of Philip Larkin came to mind:

"Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,

As epitaph: He chucked up everything

And just cleared off,

And always the voice will sound

Certain you approve

This audacious, purifying,

Elemental move.

For the next stage in my journey, click here.