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 sf mihail 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

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?

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.

Friday, 13 September 2013

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?

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.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Disjointed thoughts on prolific writers, prolific facial hair, pubic hair, and so on

George Saintsbury 

Here is an interesting list of 'the top ten literary beards ranked in order of increasing awesomeness'. A shame though that Edward Lear is missing.
Edward Lear

Not only did he have a prolific beard but he penned the most famous poem about a beard.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Lunch with a Syrian refugee

Until a year or so ago I had never seen a  woman in Bucharest wearing a Muslim headscarf. The head-scarves Romanian peasant women wear are different. Now I see Muslim women and girls almost every day. I started a conversation with two recently and they said they were Syrian refugees staying with their uncle. I  suspect Bucharest is full of Syrians but I can find no  numbers on the internet.

It is a whole year exactly since I last met my Syrian Christian friend, though I had intended to see him much more often. He is a very nice man but I have a self-interested motive, to find out what is really going on in Syria from someone whom I trust and who is a Christian, meaning he is therefore neutral between Sunni, Shia and Alawi.

I invited him to lunch with me but he with characteristic Arab hospitality insisted on inviting me. We ate at Piccolo Mondo, the most famous of Bucharest's Arab restaurants. I of course pumped him.

He is a very discreet man who has a business in Syria and avoids commenting on what is happening there in public. This is why I am not giving his name. A year ago he told me he expected to be back in Damascus in a month, after the Government had been overthrown and peace restored. I knew he would be here for years but said nothing. A year before that, I remember him telling me that he and the other Christians would never leave their country but now I feel he is thinking of spending is life in Bucharest, at least for many years while his children are educated. Two million Syrians he says have left Syria. That's a lot out of twenty-two million and, naturally, they are disproportionately the well-educated and intelligent ones.

Last year he told me all the Christians and almost all the Sunnis wanted the regime to go and even half the Alawis agreed. This time, he talked about the horrors of the war and has even less liking for the regime which has perpetrated so many of them but, in the end, he said quietly that he prefers that the regime wins. The rebels are not organised and if they win or share power chaos will be the result. Rebels are beginning to fight each other and some are coming over to the government side. The best hope, he says, is that the regime remains but reforms itself and a peace is made. I cannot persuade him to say that Christians in general are now on the side of the regime. He is certain that he does not want the UK and France to intervene.

His judgement is, as it happens, exactly the same as the conclusion I had reached, but until I spoke to him I had kept my opinion to myself, waiting to hear what he thought. 

Why did the regime not fall last summer? Because Iran and Hezbollah intervened to support the government.

He also thinks it possible that the fighting in Syria may lead to a redrawing of national boundaries. It is not difficult to imagine the artificial boundaries imposed by Britain and France to create Iraq, Syria and Lebanon being torn up.

He says what he said last year that until the unrest started Shia, Sunni, Alawi and Christian had no problems. I hear many Bosnians tell me the same thing in 1996 immediately after the war ended and I believe him. He emphases now as he did when we first met in Syria long ago that he has very many close Muslim friends and most of the people in his class at school were Muslims. Nevertheless though he likes and admires Muslims, whom he think make good businessmen, he would not invite one into his house '
because their way of thinking is too different'.  Would his unveiled wife wearing lipstick be the reason? Syrian Muslims have told me that if I were invited to their houses their wives would be unveiled. That would only be a small part of the differences my friend says, without enumerating others.

If I were to say that I had many close Muslim or Jewish or black friends but would not let them in my house this would not sound very friendly of me, but in the Middle East, as in Romania, people do not often invite others to their house but entertain in restaurants instead. In addition, in the Middle East men socialise among themselves and Muslims never seem to take their wives out to restaurants.

As I am an imperialist it pleased me to hear him say, without any prompting, how much Syria owed to the French who created the country and ruled it for twenty-five years. His school was built by the French,  the educational system was created by them and they founded hospitals and did other fine things. When the regime complained about French colonial rule this stands in ironic contrast with the way the country was ruled after independence.

It occurs to me as I write this that Ba'athism, founded by a Syrian Christian, in its nationalism, socialism and secularism owes quite a lot to the French, though the former British mandate, Iraq, was also ruled by the Ba'ath. Iraq was ruled brutally and wickedly by Saddam and the Ba'ath, but in Iraq what succeeded the Ba'ath was much worse and so it would be, I think, in Syria.

The Balkans and the Christian Middle East belong to the same cultural space. Syrian Christians, someone in Athens told me recently, like emigrating to Greece more than any other countries, because there they feel most at home. Romania also has many things in common with Christian Syria, including the same Orthodox religion. It will probably also have a sizeable Muslim minority as a result of the refugees. I was told recently that in addition to Syrians there are sizeable numbers of Muslim immigrants entering Romania from other countries and some Romanians have converted to Islam. Until recently Romania had 20,000 Muslims, in the Dobrudgea, the only part of Romania where before 1878 they were allowed to settle, but this figure is out of date.

I believe my friend completely when he says he is not opposed to Muslims but he tells me with utter conviction that I should warn people about the danger of Muslim immigration into Europe. Europe he believes and fears will have a Muslim majority in the foreseeable future. 

Syrian Christians do not understand why European governments are so easy-going and laissez-faire with Muslims and fear that the Muslims will quickly out-breed their Christian hosts. Islam, so Syrian Christians think, is an inherently intolerant and aggressive religion. 

It all sounded like the Catholic Bishop of Zanzibar telling me last year that Westerners should see how Muslims behave where they are the majority.

Friday, 26 July 2013

An Englishman in England might go to prison for calling an MP a coward

This story deserves as much coverage as possible.

Think about it. A man called Alex Cline is being prosecuted simply for calling an MP a coward.

I am not blaming the MP whose complaint led to this grotesque prosecution, though I hope even his party faithful refuse in disgust to vote for him at the next election. No, he did not decide that Mr. Cline should be prosecuted. In any case, I am grateful for this prosecution - because we now know how authoritarian English law has become. Except only readers of the Brighton and Hove local press do. The news may have travelled as far

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The world’s ten most beautiful buildings

Taj Mahal

Lonely Planet is always spamming me with things - of course I could unsubscribe but I like being reminded of travel possibilities when I am supposed to be working. As Tony Hawks put it 
'I travel a lot; I hate having my life disrupted by routine.'

I rarely open them as I consider Lonely Planet my sworn foe and the foe of civilisation (along with Al Qaeda, feminism and out of town shopping centres) but I did look at this list of the world's most beautiful buildings.

First the boast, which is what travel is now all about. Which ones have I seen? Four: the Aya Sofia, the Winter Palace; the Taj Mahal and Craque des Chevaliers.

I longed to see the Sagrada Familia from childhood but when I spent 24 hours in Barcelona my childhood training, looking round churches with my father on holiday, was too strong. I did not really have time for both and Barcelona Cathedral, being mediaeval, had to have priority I felt. A mistake, though Barcelona Cathedral is quite wonderful. Did I glimpse the Sagrada Familia from a bus or train? I think yes, for a moment.

I stayed three nights in a hotel a very short distance from the Winter Palace but never entered. A wise Russian woman (that makes her sound like a witch but she was nothing of the sort) whom I made friends with advised me that the Hermitage required an entire day and as I had only three in St Petersburg I should devote them all to St Petersburg. She was right.

Winter Palace

T.E. Laurence visited Craque des Chevaliers about twenty times (he also left the Hotel Baron in Aleppo, where I also stayed, without paying his bill). Craque des Chevaliers is simply astonishingly beautiful. Though I used to love castles so much as a young boy, my adult taste is for churches, but Craque des Chevaliers is incomparable. Do its friends shorten its name to Craque? It seems a gross familiarity for such a noble structure.

Aya Sofya

When I first visited it the Aya Sofia reminded me of a bus station, as the aunt says it does in Graham Greene's Travels with my Aunt. Travels with my Aunt was written in the early 60s, when Istanbul seemed to the meek retired bank manager nephew and to almost all Greene's readers an impossibly exotic place. An era long before Lonely Planet readers settled on every old city like vultures on carrion. I thought the Blue Mosque amply achieved its aim of being more beautiful. I am no longer so sure and in any case think the Aya Sofia very beautiful or at least thinks its icons and interiors very beautiful, which is not quite the same thing.

Which would my ten be?

The Taj Mahal. I suppose the most beautiful building I ever saw. I have almost forgotten its association with Diana, Princess of Wales but for some reason I do not remember it very well. I know it was as beautiful as it looks in pictures, which means the most beautiful thing on earth, women excepted.

The Royal Maritime College, Greenwich, is like a chord of music. It pips Trinity College, Cambridge Great Court. (Why did I let my headmaster talk me out of applying to Trinity?Apart from the Wren architecture, Dryden and Macaulay were two of my great heroes, not to mention Bentley, Wordsworth and Byron. And in my year, the first where women were admitted, I had two girls I thought stupendous, both now TV stars, Vanessa Feltz and Daisy Goodwin.) I might give the Royal Maritime College second place.

Aachen Cathedral

St. Peter's in Rome

The Blue Mosque

St. Mark's in Venice

The Lloyd's Building, London

Where else? I have three places left.

English churches come to my mind like Rochester Cathedral, Waltham Abbey or Wells Cathedral or....  Clare College, Cambridge? One of the wonderful churches in Georgia? The Stavropoleos Church in Bucharest is no slouch and probably beats even the gorgeous monasteries of Armenia. If paintings rather then architecture is our criterion then Suceviţa monastery in the Bucovina certainly deserves a place. The Houses of Parliament, a.k.a. the Palace of Westminster, where I began my career and adult life? For Barry's structure and Pugin's interior design of the House of Lords I think possibly yes. But St James's Palace is more beautiful....

I have decided. The last three places go to:

The Stavropoleos Church, Bucharest

Beaumaris Castle, Anglesey (a surprise finisher which came up suddenly from behind) Perhaps I chose it because I was 11 when I was there and could see beauty much more easily than I can now.

St. Mary's Church, in the market square in Cracow.

And Trinity College Great Court. Even though it fills me with jealousy and regrets that I went to Queens's, which had a 1970s dining hall. Eleven.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

A long weekend in Kadakoy = Chalcedon

I spent a wonderful long weekend in Istanbul, which I do not quite have the courage to call Constantinople, even though an  other worldly parson friend encourages me to do so. Actually I was not in Istanbul but in Kadakoy, on the Asian side, which is very easy to get to from the Gokcem airport, where the budget airline Pegasus flies to. Pegasus is a delight among budget airlines, flying at normal times from Bucharest and using spacious planes. 

And Kadakoy is Chalcedon, where the Council of Chalcedon met! I could google to remind myself what that famous and great ecumenical council decided, but the truth is I do not any longer know and I leave you to  find out. Kadakoy, unlike the tourist museum Sultanhamit, where no Istanbulians venture, is the real Istanbul. More so also than the charming Beyoglu, where the restaurants are, which is the much more charming, Turkish-elegant equivalent of Covent Garden. Kadikoy is not plant for the tourist industry. Relaxingly, it has no sights. It just is and is a busy little port on the Bosporus, full of cheap hotels. The Kadikoy bazaar, which twenty years ago was just shops and stalls, is now home to some restaurants too and they specialise, of course, in freshly caught fish.


So my friend Tufan told me after inviting me to meet him in an excellent one, called Nimet, where we sat drinking much raki (I have a childish delight in watching it turn white when water is added), eating delicious fish and discussing God and the events in Taksim Square. 

My friend is an old Communist (Turkey much more even than Greece abounds in them and they are sound anti-Islamists) who feels that thanks to the events in Taksim bliss is it in this morn to be alive, even if he is not young enough for it to be very heaven. He spends every evening there and gives advice to the kids on what to do. He it was who said having gathered a huge crowd they had to do something and persuaded them to march across the Bosporus bridge and confront the police. I felt sorry for my friend that his gammy leg stopped him leading the procession to its denouement. He is the stuff of which charismatic revolutionary leaders are made but is far too decent and good to last long in a real Bolshevik regime.

Kadakoy market has a buzz at night. There seemed no foreigners but probably there were some - foreigners are everywhere these days. People played good street music. A girl, her eyes shining with idealism, came round singing an unmelodious song about the demonstrations in Taksim. Tufan gave her money but I think on political not musical grounds. It was late and dusk was gathering at the close of a long hot summer day. Turkey feels modern but it has a lot of texture. Romania is much less modern but is slightly thinner.

Kadikoy is where the ferries leave for the Spice Market on the European side, one of the areas of maximum interest to visitors, so it is a great place to stay to see Istanbul. The drawback of Kadikoy is the length of time it takes by road to cross the bridge. Getting to Edirne for the oil wrestling festival took me five hours each way as opposed to three hours when i went from Taksim. Istanbul my friend said had a population of two million when he was a boy. Now it is twelve of thirteen, perhaps fifteen million. This is what would happen to all the big cities of Europe were there no planning restrictions and this is why property prices rose so high around the world and then became so disastrous a bubble. The huge drift of Anatolian peasants to Istanbul is a small part of a great exodus of people from the poor world towards richer places, especially Western Europe, which will transform bourgeois Europe.

Dinner with two old friends in Nimet again and breakfasting with some more Turkish friends, still in Kadakoy. At breakfast I met a Turkish political scientist with whom I discussed Erogan and Enver Pasha. Like so many Turks I have known she had just made her first visit to Greece and loved it. Greeks I know have made the same discovery in reverse and when I was in Athens recently I was told a Turkish production - mirabile dictu - was the most popular soap opera. I said that Greeks and Turks had so much in common and the political scientist said it's a shame that Greece and Turkey did not remain one loosely federated country. I warmly agreed and was pleased to hear a Turk say so. And had they held onto the Arab lands they would have had all the oil and there would be no Middle Eastern problem.

Had Turkey and Greece remained one country perhaps Constantinople would have continued to have a Christian majority, as it did in 1914, Adrianople continued to have roughly equal numbers of Turks, Greeks and Bulgarians and Salonica remained a leading centre for Sephardic Jews. I feel that at least Constantinople, Salonica, Smyrna and Jerusalem should have been made international cities or independent city states, but the spirit of the times was strongly in favour of nation states. I wonder if Mr. Woodrow Wilson is in hell.

Now these cities, with the partial exception of Jerusalem, have been ethnically cleansed and are dull reminders of their vibrant pasts. Formerly homogeneous cities in Western Europe, by contrast, have become full of many races, even as their respective host cultures have become semi-American.

By a piece of luck, as I walked back to my hotel to pack and leave, I stumbled on Mass in an Armenian church. I counted about forty people in the congregation. There are, I doscoverd, somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 Armenians in Turkey, mostly in Istanbul, though no-one seems very sure. There are others who have converted to Islam and become Turks or Kurds or have pretended to have done so (the so-called crypto-Armenians).In 1914 there were up to two million. What happened to them is not well documented at all but it seems that most were killed and the rest fled or shed their national identity. As Adolf Hitler is said to have said (though this has been questioned) 'Who now remembers the Armenians?'

I have decided after some hesitation in the past that, like many of my friends, I do love Istanbul, even though it is a pale shadow of the real Constantinople, built of wood, full of ghosts, where Muslims were a minority. The real Constantinople lasted until property developers ruined the place in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Until the inter-ethnic riots in 1955 there were still plenty of Greeks too.

Istanbul is wonderful, a bright, happy place, very modern despite its monuments, but, coming back, I definitely prefer Bucharest. Prefer it for being much smaller and much more old fashioned, more shadowed, more provincial, much less globalised too. For being a gossipy 19th century village. Odd to think that fifty years ago both cities had populations of two million. Now Istanbul is a mega-city like Delhi or Bombay and has at least six times more people, housed in 
seemingly well constructed tower blocks built by housing cooperatives. These cut a very favourable contrast with Bucharest's jerry-built blocks of flats. If I lived in one I should much prefer to live in Istanbul. For a weekend or a holiday it is delectable.