Friday, 31 October 2014

Discussing fascism in Bucharest with the imagologists

Today is the horrible commercial festival of Hallowe'en and an opportunity for fun and parties and to scare ourselves with bogeymen. Or bogey persons. But we do this all the year round and the chief bogeyman is fascism.

Fascism is no danger in Europe for the next twenty years - but fear of fascism is a danger and is to blame for very many bad things. I discovered that it is incredibly prevalent among academics. I was with thirty of them at a conference in Bucharest on Imagological Stereotypes at the weekend. A wonderful occasion, by the way, to meet clever academics and throw around ideas, but they all seem to be sniffy about 'stereotypes', whatever they are exactly, and to disapprove strongly of national stereotypes.

One distinguished professor of Imagology, who had delivered a good talk on 'nationalist discourse', Joep, was saying he has been thinking for years about this and slowly realised that we think dictatorships begin with a putsch but they can come slowly and unnoticed. I warmly agreed and mentioned loss of freedom of speech. He looked at me sharply and asked for examples. 

I gave two from the UK, though I could have given very many: the putative new law to make sexual harassment online an offence punishable with two years in gaol and the story of the man who went to prison for two months for saying on Twitter that he hoped a footballer who was in a coma would die. Joep was in favour of these laws. 

He brought up the subject of Geert Wilders who, Joep said, asked a crowd if they wanted fewer Moroccans in Holland and was prosecuted for racism. When I said that  in a democratic society any political programme should be allowed, 'We have judges who decide these things' Joep said with great severity. He is very pleased about the prosecution. I felt very much that I would not like to be a defendant coming up before Joep as a judge.

What becomes clearer as I think about this is that it is Joep who, from the best of intentions, is becoming a fascist.

Unfortunately, he speaks for most academics in humanities who see nationalism as a purely negative thing. What is sad is that these people really do believe in a grave threat from the anti immigration right (why?) and are generals fighting the last war. They don't realise that evil morphs and the lessons they learn from Nazism are the wrong ones anyway. For example the lesson we have drawn from the Nazis is that ethnically mixed societies are ipso facto good things rather than ipso facto volatile things.

When I was growing up in the cold war fascism was hated for many reasons but principally as an enemy of freedom and democracy, together with communism, but nowadays it is the racial aspects of Nazism which are what drives anti-fascism. This is fine - but concerns about freedom and democracy take a somewhat distant second place and this is worrying. In fact freedom is deeply unfashionable these days, despite or because of anti-fascism. Freedom's mortal foe, equality, was never more in fashion.

I noticed for the first time that Joep's hair was slightly longer than is normal and brushed over his ears. in the 1970s it had been much longer and he is old enough to remember the revolutionary year of 1968. I used to think that the 1968-ers had lost when communism collapsed and free market economics became generally accepted. In fact, these two things were a liberation for the left which is more powerful than ever before in history. As Geert Wilders is discovering.

Friday, 24 October 2014

The hole in Bucharest that’s become a nature reserve

This article by Michael Bird was published recently by the New Statesman and he has given me permission to post it here

A failure in Romania’s brutalist architectural planning of the 1980s has transformed a massive hole in Bucharest into an anarchic expanse of natural and urban coexistence.
The communists wanted a reservoir. The capitalists wanted a casino. The city got something else entirely.
“No one made any intervention,” says eco-activist Dan Barbulescu, as he leads me through the paths of the abandoned reservoir. “We did not plant anything. Only the wind and birds have bought seeds to this place.”
Poplars and willows are scattered through this verdant terrain where lakes over four metres deep are packed with thick bullrushes flickering in the wind. A concrete escarpment shields the wildlife from twenty-story tower blocks that rim Vacaresti Lake: a lush enclave in the urban congestion of Bucharest.
Barbulescu is executive director of the Save the Danube & Delta Association. But he also promotes this wetland reserve, where over 86 species of birds thrive, alongside newts, foxes, water snakes and stray dogs. Natural springs emerge from beneath a strip of concrete, where families of otters have arrived, travelling through the sewer tunnels. Nature has ravaged this empty space over 20 years of neglect; Barbulescu calls it “a school of life in the open air.”
This is the richest and wildest park in Bucharest – but this wasn’t supposed to happen at all. Under communism, the plan was for Vacaresti to be filled with water; in the idiotic capitalist years of the mid-2000s, it was meant to be a concert venue. Both projects collapsed – and the zone became a metaphor for the failures of Romania’s development under both communist and free market principles.
Yet its teeming wildlife, lawless beauty and inhabitants of drifters, scraping a living by harvesting the wild, lay the foundations for how this troubled country could prosper.
With over two million inhabitants, Bucharest is one of the largest cities in eastern Europe. And, more than any other ex-Communist city, the Romanian capital suffered from the grand redevelopment projects of a mad dictator, who sought to build a workers’ paradise based on a clueless interpretation of modernist principles.
From the 1970s, Niculae Ceausescu demolished the Vacaresti district’s winding 19th and early 20th century streets of low-level housing and kitchen gardens. (A few traces remain: a cobbled path from an old house nudging through the vegetation, say.) His plan was to create towering residential projects inspired by his visits to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. To supply water for this high-density housing, and to act as flood protection, he constructed two giant reservoirs at either end of the capital. One was completed; Vacaresti lay empty.
In the early 2000s, the space was again earmarked for development: this time it was to include a hippodrome, casinos, hotel and a golf course. But in 2008, Bucharest was hit by a double whammy. Its post-EU accession real estate bubble burst at the same time as the global financial crisis pulverised the city’s private development. Investors pulled out of the Vascaresti project.
Meanwhile the muddy hole attracted peculiar vegetation, then fish and amphibians and, once the trees and bushes had grown, migrating birds.
Similar wetlands exist elsewhere: in Nantes, Copenhagen, Buenos Aires, Shanghai. But Dan Barbulescu calls Vacaresti lake, with 190 hectares, “the largest urban humid natural reserve in Europe”.
Four dedicated organisations look after the lake and offer a viewing platform at a nearby tower block. Their ambition is to build wooden walkways through the zone, and an observation centre.
But neither City Hall, the Ministry of the Environment or private donors or charities has any cash for the place. European Union funds are the only option – but before that can happen, the space needs the local government to grant the zone protected area status.
And, although the Romanian leadership seems open to the idea, it has been locked in bureaucracy for over a year. Former owners of houses seized and bulldozed by the Communists are still soliciting the government for rights to their properties. According to Cristian Nan, a representative of some ex-owners, they want to take back their land and lease it to the state.
The Ministry of the Environment claims it is still putting together all the paperwork, before it can create a Natural Park with protected status – but activists are exasperated by the delay.
While the status of the wasteland remains in limbo, Vacaresti Lake thrives as an unofficial zone for leisure, business and housing. Several families have made their home in the reserve. Among them is 48-year old Gica, lying on a mattress outside his home-made shack, playing with his naked daughter. I ask him what his second name is. He offers two options. “You can either call me Gica ‘Pescarul’ (The Fisherman) or Gica ‘Lacului’ (of the Lake).”
Scarred across his body by a house-fire, he now squats with nine children next to a duck pond. “I won’t move,” he says. “Why? I love it here. Fresh air. A large garden – a place for children to run free.”
Gice has lived here for 16 years, and calls himself a “warden” of the lake, which he treats as an extended garden. He shows me a picture on his phone with a cormorant on his shoulder. He loves the birds, but has a problem with the rats.
Meanwhile three pigs are wandering free around the reeds and the grass. “Only one will be killed for Christmas,” he says.
He claims he only eats the fish. He doesn’t touch the birds and wild ducks. “How about the otters?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “I don’t eat the otters.”
Outdoor pursuits here also include sex. Playboy Romania has already filmed a nude photo-shoot on the land. Now it seems the zone is a place for cruising, too. Gica says he sees about 15 people per day having assignations in woods.
As I walk through the streets, I see one guy in his early thirties, naked except for a baseball cap, sunglasses, shorts and a pair of trainers. His tanned skin is waxed clean and he smiles and says “Good day” as he walks past. It’s clear he’s not a fisherman or a jogger, so I assume he’s there for another reason, but I don’t dare ask him if he’s there for sex.
I ask Gica whether the place has ever been a dumping ground for corpses. He claims that only once, a decade ago, was there a “burnt body in the woods”.
On the escarpment, a man with no front teeth is binding up willow branches. Thin and twisted, they can be stripped and used as ornamental decoration. I ask whether he will sell them. He mutters that he is not sure. How much can he get for them: three Euro a bunch? “It depends,” he replies, turning his head to the ground.
Along the edge of the dam pass a horse and cart, its rickety trailer full of wild mint stripped from the zone. On the far side of the escarpment, a mother grapples her five-year old daughter as they negotiate the steep concrete. They carry a plastic bag of food for the stray dogs.
People still crack open the concrete to mine for scrap metal to sell: one of the main sources of cash for the city’s massive underclass. But if the lake offers some drifters a sustainable business, others’ behaviour is more destructive. Some nearby residents cut down the trees for lumber and firewood, and parts of the zone are a dumping ground for fly-tipping. Meanwhile fisherman sit back and drink cheap vodka and plastic bottles of beer, before chucking the empties into the ponds while they fish.
Nevertheless Vacaresti Lake has moved on from being just another urban wetland reserve. In Bucharest, state intervention has plagued the livelihoods of citizens for decades. The lake shows that, when the government pulls back, the people can still  create order, business and pleasure out of anarchy.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Corina Creţu ten years ago

Corina Creţu was confirmed this afternoon as the European Commissioner (the Romanian word 'comisar' has a strangely Communist flavour) for Regional Development and therefore the statutory Romanian member of the European Commission.

People in England have been asking me about her which led me to dig out this article I wrote about her part in the exit of Ion Iliescu from the leadership of the post-communist Social Democratic Party (PSD), in April 2005.

We have passed a lot of water under the bridge since those days, to quote Sam Goldwyn, and much has happened to all the figures mentioned in the article. Corina Creţu, before being nominated to the commission, was best known for having exchanged "very personal emails" with the very married Colin Powell. These had begun in 2005. Guccifer the Romanian hacker who hacked into her email account and made the contents public has  just been sentenced to seven years, poor fellow. It seems very harsh.

Mircea Geoană came within a whisker of beating Traian Basescu in the presidential election in 2009, just as Adrian Nastase had done in 2004. Mr. Geoană has since been expelled from the party and then readmitted, but is effectively sidelined, while Adrian Nastase is serving his second prison sentence for corruption. Mr. Meleșcanu runs the external secret service and is standing for president, but doesn't have much of a chance. Mr. Iliescu is still honorary president of his party.

Ole Ole Ole Iliescu nu mai e!

History said a now discredited German philosopher repeats
itself first as tragedy then as farce. Marx's comment on the French
revolution of 1848 sprang to mind as Ion Iliescu was
removed in an unexpected internal coup from the leadership of the
Social Democratic Party (PSD) the party he founded and for fifteen
years dominated even when as President he was required not to belong
to a political party. The parallels with the way in which he removed
his predecessor Nicolae Ceausescu from power were irresistible. Ole
ole ole Iliescu nu mai e! sang the front page of the tabloid Libertate
and the headline appeared in other papers, a paraphrase of the
euphoric chant of the crowds in the 1989 Revolution: hurrah hurrah
Ceausescu is no more!

Fifteen years ago Iliescu and his fellow Gorbachov Communists took over the Oedipal popular uprising against Ceausescu which many now say was staged by an alliance between the KGB and Western intelligence agencies. For most of those fifteen years Ion Iliescu, now 75 and educated at Moscow University in Stalin’s time, where he is said to have been recruited by Russian intelligence, had presided over Romania as she made the slowest progress of any former Soviet satellite in Eastern Europe towards functioning capitalism. In those fifteen years former Communists ran a kleptocracy comparable with Yeltsin’s Russia or Lukashenko’s Belarus while the Government slowly adopted chapter by chapter the requirements of entry to the European Union.
Now the younger generation of Social Democrats whom Iliescu had nurtured turned on him and at last cornered the consummate political fixer.  It was Iliescu who to his
surprise and horror found himself losing control of the Party Congress
of April 21.This time a coup de theatre rather than a coup d'etat. And
marvellous theatre it was.

In the four months since PSD Prime Minister Adrian Nastase snatched
defeat from the jaws of victory in the Presidential elections, Iliescu
had given effortless master classes in how to outmanoeuvre your
political rivals. He had checkmated Nastase and Mircea Geoana in the
same way that he had sidetracked in turn Petre Roman, Teodor Melescanu
and every other rival for power within his party for fifteen years.
Nastase had discovered that he wasn't strong enough to stand against
Iliescu for the leadership of the party and was touchingly grateful to
be earmarked the specially created position of Executive President
Iliescu was confident enough to humiliate Geoana his former disciple
describing him as a dunce (prostenac) for making an alliance with the
Hungarians in round two of the Presidentials. In so doing he
precipitated Geoana's decision to gratify his injured pride by making
a seemingly unlikely bid himself for the leadership.

But Geoana's candidature was no mere marker for the future. Undetected
the tectonic plates within the party were shifting. An alliance had
been secretly put in place that was strong enough to topple Iliescu
but secrecy was vital just as it was for there conspirators of 1989.

Geoana only announced a firm decision to stand for the leadership at
the last possible moment and by then  had secretly built alliances
with Miron Mitrea, Viorel Hrebenciuc and with Ioan Rus's Cluj group.
On Wednesday night  these party elders secretly directed their
followers to switch support from Iliescu to Geoana. Only immediately
before the start of the Congress did the three went to Iliescu and
offered him the chance to stand down gracefully and be elected
honorary party president. Iliescu's reaction was one of blind fury and
he angrily turned them out of his office.

At that point the Congress opened and Iliescu was voted to chair the
Congress. This kept him on the platform and out of contact with
opinion amongst the party delegates, the PSD barons from the local
party branches, in the corridors of Sala Palatului and in nearby
restaurants where the deals were being made. Nastase who at lunchtime
praised Iliescu fulsomely to delegates who knew the two hated each
other began negotiations with the conspirators and by the afternoon
was describing Geoana as `A team player with whom I always
collaborated very well.'

Just so did figures in December 1989 like General Stanculescu play a
double game until the end. Talleyrand in the  French Revolution of
1830 went to the window looked out at the streetfighting and said `I
see our side is winning.' Someone asked him `Which side is that?" and
Talleyrand very shocked replied `I shall tell you tomorrow.'

The conspiracy would not have succeeded so well and might not have
succeeded at all had not Iliescu very angry and badly frightened made
a terrible mistake. Calling Nastase to the podium he said `I now
invite to speak Comrade Nastase'. The walls of the hall blushed. The
word tovarasi (comrade) has been unspeakable except in black jokes
since December 1989. Immediately Iliescu added that the `comrade' was
regularly used by Social Democratic parties elsewhere in Europe but
the word once uttered could not be recalled.

At that moment Iliescu lost the delegates and the party. None of his
supporters could provide an excuse for him. Either Iliescu was still a
Communist or he was becoming senile and no longer knows what he is
saying. Or of course both. Either way Iliescu belonged to another age.
Fifteen years after the Revolution had been hijacked by Iliescu
everyone realised, irrespective of the backstairs political deals
being struck and unstruck, that the party needed a new leader.

It is very strange that moment when power suddenly passes from those
who have long held it securely. It happened with Margaret Thatcher in
1990 and with Mikhail Gorbachov a year later. Ceausescu at the famous
speech from the balcony of the Central Committee building sensing the
hatred of the crowd had promised increases in rations and salaries.
That was the moment when his power was broken.

Iliescu was left alone on the podium in the hall while power shifted
elsewhere. In this case power did not fall in Lenin's phrase into the
streets. It fell for the moment into the manicured and improbable
hands of Mircea Geoana. Corina Cretu, Iliescu's devoted spokeswoman
and Senator Nicolae were almost the only supporters who by midnight
remained loyal to the old man. It was Mrs. Cretu's melancholy duty to
keep her mentor informed of how the conspiracy against him was
prospering. The whole second tier of the leadership had forgotten
their rivalries and grudges and momentarily united against him.

These past three weeks have been full of gripping events abroad (the
death of a Pope and the election of another) and closer to home (the
Romanian hostage crisis goes on and on and becomes more alarming by
the day) but for drama the Party Congress eclipsed for the moment
anything else. Iliescu kept his lonely place on the  platform until 3
in the morning but he left before the vote was announced: Geoana  964;
Iliescu 530.

Geoana was President (leader) of the party, Nastase Executive
President, Mitrea Secretary-General. Iliescu was a rank and file party
member. Of his supporters only Corina Cretu, Vacaroiu and Dan Ioan
Pascu were elected as Vice-Presidents. Mrs Cretu had threatened to
resign from the party if Iliescu were not chosen leader. Nastase's
people tracked her down in the confusion to ask her when she would
resign so that a new Vice-President could be chosen in her place.

Iliescu's reaction when he knew defeat was unavoidable was to cry out
in a rage worthy of King Lear: `I do not need a position in order to
continue to lead the party.' But in fact for Iliescu there is no way
back. He has not been shot by firing squad and so unlike his former
leader he will be able to make scathing and damaging comments those
who betrayed him but his political importance is over. In the words of
Enoch Powell, `All political careers, unless cut off by untimely
death, end in failure.'

`From now on the party is democratic' announced Mircea Geoana as he accepted the leadership of the party, but the truth is that like the takeover Ion Iliescu led in December 1989 this was a palace coup pretending to be  a revolution. The man at the top changed but the people beneath mostly stayed the same.

Geoana is a good-looking, well-dressed figure who looks and sounds acceptable to other European
leaders but he has been content to be a leading figure in one of the
most corrupt Governments since the Phanariots ruled in the eighteenth
and early nineteenth centuries. He himself has been less dogged by
scandals and less dishonest than many of his colleagues but there is
nothing in his record or in his character to suggest that he has the
strength or political skills to be leader in fact as well as name.

A party dominated by figures like Adrian Nastase and Miron Mitrea has
a very long journey indeed to go to become a modern European
left-of-centre party. Indeed corruption is not the issue here. Iliescu
was probably justified in boasting that he himself was poor but
honest. No one ever suggested that he himself stole. Even the men in
his camp were usually less egregiously corrupt than the so-called
modernisers in the party who grouped themselves around  Nastase or Mitrea.

But even the PSD must like all mortal things change and develop. The
party activists joined the party to enrich themselves and they did so
from fraudulent privatisations and embezzling banks. That era, as
Alina Mungiu-Pippidi has pointed out, has come to an end. Today the
biggest source of money in politics is European Union grants. The wind
blows from Brussels and to align themselves towards Brussels the PSD
has to camouflage itself in European colours.

With the final passing of Ion Iliescu, a PSD apparently led by Geoana
will be a more formidable rival for the present Government. Whether
the PSD manages to return to power or whether it continues to decline
along with its natural constituency, the pensioners, the workers and
the peasants, will depend on what always decides political success or
failure: events.

P.S Corina Cretu did not resign as a Party Vice-President and she is now one of the leading supporters of Mircea Geoana.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Raymond Chandler in Bucharest

I just gave the girls in the office a copy each, in Romanian translation, of Farewell, My Lovely. I spotted copies on sale at the tobacco kiosk in the street below. I envy anyone reading Raymond Chandler for the first time. He is not just a good detective story writer but a great writer, a major prose stylist. 

Why is Chandler one of the immortals? Sir Tom Stoppard explains here.
It was not the admittedly enjoyable asides.
     ''You can't tell anything about an outfit like that,''
Marlowe reflects as he smokes his cigarette.
    ''They might be making millions, and they might have the sheriff in the back      room, with his chair tilted against the safe.' '
It was more this, which is what happens next.

''Half an hour and three or four cigarettes later a door opened behind Miss Fromsett's desk and two men came out backwards, laughing. A third man held the door for them and helped them laugh. They all shook hands heartily and the two men went across the offi ce and out. The third man dropped the grin off his face and looked as if he had never grinned in his life.''

Look at it. This is writing at 24 frames per second. The paragraph mimics the action. You get the wait, then the door; you g et their backs before the laughing. The repeat ''laugh'' placed at the end of the sentence pulls the laughter through the intervening time. The ''out'' at the end of the next sentence is the monosyllable made by the door closing.

Chandler, improbably, went to Dulwich, the same English minor public school  as P.G. Wodehouse and C.S. Forester (and Nigel Farage). It's odd that Wodehouse is also a popular writer who will outlive his highbrow contemporaries - whether C.S. Forester does I am less sure. Chandler wrote only six novels - slowly - and the major character in all of them is not Philip Marlowe, their hero, but Los Angeles, a city which Raymond Chandler hated. 

How I should like to make Bucharest the main character in a novel.

Here are some more quotations:

There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.

To say goodbye is to die a little. 
He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.

She jerked away from me like a startled fawn might, if I had a startled fawn and it jerked away from me.
When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.
From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.

Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.

There is no bad whiskey. There are only some whiskeys that aren't as good as others.

I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.

When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn't have one. I didn't care. I finished the drink and went to bed.

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.

There's more Chandler here. 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Romanian labour force finally equals the number of retired people

A remarkable turning-point in the Romanian economy has just been reached. The number of retired people and employed people in Romania are now roughly equal, latest figures show.  This is an almost incredible thing. In comparison, in 2000 there were two pensioners for every one employed person.

Figures issued yesterday by the Minister of Labour show that 5.7 million Romanians are now employed, of whom 5.2 million have permanent full-time jobs while 5.2 million receive state pensions - out of a population that has fallen to a fraction under 20 million. So a little over a quarter of the population are now in permanent full-time jobs.

Unfortunately I presume the causes of this change are a high mortality rate, not a high birth rate.

On average in developed countries 65 % of people of working age are employed and here it is 64%. More figures here.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Yazidi girls kidnapped by Isil tell of their captivity

Here are some stories of Yazidi girls who escaped from Isil. The stories are harrowing,  but oddly like stories from the Arabian Nights. 

They also remind me of Henry Mayhew's spare narratives and Philip Larkin's poem inspired by reading Mayhew, Deceptions.

When I was a child my parents worried that because I read so much I would live life at second hand, mediated through books, and rereading this post I see that this is exactly what I do.  Illiterates and people who do not like read much see things more clearly. This is why people who read engineering and science at university are dull while at university but become interesting in middle age. They do not see things mediated through literature. Unfortunately they do not escape television and the internet so easily, though.

I have been to Lalish, the centre of the Yazidi religion, and I am horrified by this attempt to destroy an ancient community. Allowing Yazidis asylum in the rich world will do even more to destroy their culture. Even though I would prefer the Yazidis to convert to Christianity the antiquity of Yazidism holds me enthralled. I am convinced that it Is one of the very oldest religions in the world, perhaps the oldest. 

The Americans and British have no choice but to act against ISIS or ISIL or whatever their name is this week, but what is worrying is that this is exactly what they want us to do. It does feel like the beginning of the Vietnamese war. And we Anglo-Saxons are fighting in a region where we have no great strategic interest, oil or no oil, for the interests of countries like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Israel, whose interests are not ours.

Meanwhile, in England, the National Union of Students refuses to condemn ISIS/ISIL and speak of ‘Islamophobia’, a very pernicious word that should be expunged from the dictionary. The words racism and sexism by contrast are also used to close down debate but mean something and are, at least occasionally, useful.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Hell, I suspect, resembles Liechtenstein

An article about Lichtenstein in this week's Spectator reminded me of my trip there and how much I hated the place. As much as Dubai. Fishing around for my diary of the trip which I posted back in 2010 I found it had been archived, so here it is.

The mad old woman who keeps the hotel told me it was 500 metres to Liechtenstein and was astonished I proposed to walk it.

I wish I enjoyed the magnificent mountains. Instead I counted and recounted the numbers of countries and capitals I had visited. Lichtenstein according to Wikipedia is one of 4 doubly landlocked countries. Unlike Einstein signing the patent for toblerone which is a poem enlarging the universe this fact is deeply un life enhancing and train spotterish. But I try without success to think of another. Slovakia! Yes. Belarus no. Rwanda? Burundi?

The road asphalted suburban. 2 miles? Then the border. Empty police station with photograph of the prince. Mountains as beautiful here as anywhere else. I am doing this for my 10 year old self fascinated by miniature countries. A village called Mauren.

A woman drives me to the bus stop and then I take the bus and change at another village. The village is called Mauren. All the buildings are no older than late 70s. Like Japan. Prosperous people eat on balconies and the place is calmly disgusting. An inscription names many distinguished persons who were born there including an auditor general in the department of military justice in the 1860s. Such is the nature of fame for which men give their lives.
I reach Vaduz in the intense heat. Vaduz is entirely modern. Well spoken British tourists buy souvenir visas and I do too. This is another world from mine. Chinese or Japanese. The toy train which inevitably twines through the place. Paul Gallico. Frank Muir. A fat porcine faced man running in an ill fitting suit. Banks. A five star hotel which turns out to be a law firm. The castle hanging over the placed. How lucky the Liechtenstein family were. Others submerged by Communism or the lucky ones bled by progressive taxation in Austria.

Hell I suspect resembles Liechtenstein. Underground garages, large new houses, ugly Victorian churches, crucifixion statues, money laundering for distant dictators.

Christianne who says she was 50 the day we met is nice, young in spirit and looks around 38 or 40. Just divorced. She knows the Prince of course and after forty years has become one of his subjects. Her father was the first German officer killed in the Second World War. I am not sure how sympathetic to be.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

'All our great men are dead. I don't feel so well myself.'

Who is the greatest living Englishman after Edward Norman, who is easily top?

Charles Moore? Are there any comedians, actors, writers these days? I liked Ian McEwan in 1980. No politicians or actors come to mind.

I might have considered Rod Liddle till I read the book he brought  out this year. I love Lord Salisbury, who saved the right of some hereditary peers to sit in Parliament, and Lord Sudeley who makes me look like a Jacobin, but there must be someone greater.

Martin Amis? Money was the last of his books I could read, though I once adored him.

Oh I have it. Sir Tom Stoppard the one great dramatist, surrounded by utterly talentless ones like Hare etc etc.

I mourn Sir Alec Guinness, Sir John Betjeman, Brian Johnson, Lord Deedes, AJP Taylor, Philip Larkin, Enoch Powell and despite his calling for Powell's resignation from the shadow cabinet, Lord Hailsham. Also Gerry Fitt, but he wasn't English. Nowadays I suspect Maurice Cowling, whom I am so sad I never met, might have been the greatest of all. 

The truth is though that I am terribly out of touch.

Boris Johnson might be a great Englishman in time, though I very much dislike his adulteries and his keenness to bomb Syria - and his keenness on immigration. Douglas Carswell shows promise. Lord Tebbit, whom I alway liked as a man even when I disagreed with his politics, improves with age like good Burgundy. Alan Bennett? 

Not Stephen Fry, though - or any of the other alleged national treasures.

Are there any Englishwomen of any note? Patricia Routledge comes to mind first. Lady Lucinda Lampton? The  great novelist Sybille Bedford is dead and was really German. 

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Life as a café: Vienna

In the Café Landtmann for the first time since the first week of January, 1990. I find myself liking Vienna, for the first time. I was going to say despite it's never having been Communist but some people say Austria is the last Communist country in Europe.

Or is that Greece? How hateful are English voices in a foreign city. An Englishmen is sitting behind me. His voice is nasal and of course I detest him.

Of course, one third of Vienna was ruled by the Soviet Union from 1945 to 1955, something future generations will remember only because of The Third Man, the greatest film so far ever made, which will always continue to be watched with delight. 

Khrushchev gave up the Russian sector of Austria in 1955 in return for Austrian neutrality and proposed the same solution for  Germany. The Americans were unforgivably foolish to turn down this opportunity. Ulbricht was greatly relieved. His tyranny thus continued in the misnamed German Democratic Republic.

I can't help feeling that Austrians, who caused the First World War and the Second, escaped rather lightly from the debris. This is worth remembering when you see how much fuss they make now of the Emperor Francis Joseph who declared war on Serbia and caused the nearest we have so far come (fairly near) to the end of civilisation. Someone famously said that Austria's greatest achievement was to convince the world that Beethoven was Austrian and Hitler was German. An even greater achievement was to
 reinvent themselves as Scandinavians.

The food is at best passable in the Landtmann but the waiters are wonderful and they have the slicked back hair one associates with Viennese. The Monarchy is gone but the cafes remain and have been duplicated in Budapest.

In 1990 I came to the Landtmann by accident. It was only last week that I discovered it was famous and that Freud was a regular until he fled the Germans. I also stumbled by chance on the famous Hotel Orient and stayed there, not knowing it was a house of ill fame. It was a very charming, pretty old fashioned hotel. When I looked it up on my last visit in 2006 It rented rooms by the hour. Books had been written about its cupidinous history. Graham Greene stayed there while writing The Third Man.

In 1990 I didn't think of Freud or Hitler or Strauss or Francis Joseph but Harry Lime. There was three feet of snow underfoot then and snow fell heavily and spying was heavy in the air but I was very impatient for Budapest which then seemed the most exotic place on earth along with Bucharest.

1990 is very recent but another age without mobile telephones or Wi-Fi. People smoked in restaurants. Yet it felt just as repellently modern and up-to-date as now.

A friend told me that the Landtmann was the favourite hangout of the British historian, David Irving, who spent his last freemoments there before being arrested by the Austrian police for minimising the numbers dead in the holocaust. It sounds from all I read that he is a pretty useless historian, which is a shame because a good historian who had some sympathy for the Nazis, repellent though this would be, might add to the sum of human knowledge.

The next day I discovered another famous but very different café, the Hawelka, founded just as the Nazis took over. It is untidy and slightly shabby, warm and very MittelEuropa. Young Mr. Hawelka, in his early 60s, greets visitors like old friends which many are and exudes warmth. Quite properly he had not heard of Wi-Fi though in fact they have it. I love the place. 

Prague was long ago ruined by tourists but Vienna isn't, is its own place, not nearly so globalised as you would expect, full of characters, but nevertheless heartless. Not a place that permits itself to be loved easily but I now like it. But it is artificial, the artificial capital of three artificial countries: the Holy Roman Empire, the Austrian Empire and now the (second) Austrian Republic.

A very intelligent Jewish-American historian, Jeremy Friedman, with whom I once by chance shared a sleeping wagon on the night train to Belgrade, told me that all the cities of Europe seemed to him museums with the exception of London. In Vienna one feels this acutely. Odd though that he was travelling from Bucharest but did not make it another exception, because Bucharest is certainly no museum. It is certainly utterly alive in its curious way.

It's not beautiful, though it has beauty in it, but it is always a joy to return home, when coming back from what is still 'the West'.

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Curious tomb by Canova of Marie Christine of Habsburg, in the Augustinerkirche.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Slovakian journey

Zehra church, Slovakia
We took a cheap flight  with Tarom to Vienna and drove all day to Kosice in Eastern Slovakia. We missed the turning to Eger because Hungary is very badly signposted, were depressed by Miscolz and I was elated to reach beautiful Kosice as dusk fell. Kosice Timisoara and Cluj in Romania are the three most beautiful Hungarian cities among many. All the most beautiful, Budapest excepted, lie outside Hungary, which adds to Hungarians' genetic melancholy.

At university the only time I did any hard work was when I studied Hungarian 19th and 20th century history. I chose Hungary at random as the Eastern European country to take an interest in. Over the last twenty years I have slowly come to suspect I chose the least interesting country in this fascinating part of Europe. Slovakia, on the other hand, where I lived for six months in 1990-1991, without taking great interest in it, turns out now to be utterly enchanting. 

Like Romanians Slovaks were until recently peasants. In Slovakia as in Transylvania the landowners were Hungarian. In the towns lived Hungarians, Germans and Jews. Now the Slovaks like Romanians dwell in cities that they did not build. Towns that remind me of the beautiful towns in Southern Ireland built by the Protestant Ascendancy.

This is German Europe, destroyed by Hitler's irrational racial theories. How paradoxical that the Jews, who embodied so much of German, and later Hungarian, civilisation were murdered by people who believed in German supremacy.

Kosice, like Bucharest, is a city of one street. In Kosice's case one of the loveliest in Europe, Hlavná ulica, which translates as High St or Main St, and contains a serried rank of baroque buildings. The rather pompous author of my 1999 edition of the Blue Guide was very upset that the street had been pedestrianised and this is something I too usually dislike. I don't think it was pedestrianised when I came here so recently in 1992 but I can't remember. Anyway, I think it works pretty well. I wish Bucharest does a similarly good job with Calea Victoriei if they must pedestrianise it, but I have few hopes. 

The centre of the street is the wonderful, gothic St. Elizabeth's cathedral, which is the easternmost gothic cathedral in Europe. Kosice no longer is home to large numbers of Germans or Hungarians since the post-war ethnic cleansing it still has  a fair number of Orthodox and Uniates. You feel that are at the edge of Catholic Europe, where it meets the steppe, that below the baroque and the age of reason is something else, older, more visceral..

We didn't explore Kosice before we drove across Slovakia looking for wooden churches and found not only them but the peerless Bardejov. Eastern Slovakia is a paradise for a lover of gothic churches and particularly gothic altars. The church of St. Aegidius, Bardejov, has seven of them each of extraordinary beauty. The large church was full at 12.00 Mass on a Friday. I wondered if it was some special saint's day but was told that every 12.00 Mass is full. 

It was unseasonably cold. it rained from time to time. Bardejov town square is perfect and the closed grey sky gave it a haunted quality like the opening chapter of Dracula. This is not touristland. 

Photographs are the enemy of writing but laziness and a sense that words cannot do these places justice leads me to stop typing and give you these wonderful pictures.

Which wooden church was this? It is modern and was locked.

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Kosice Cathedral

We drove back to Vienna after two days in Eastern Slovakia stopping at the wonderful Spiš castle, the surprisingly interesting old town of Prešov (the Blue Guide did not tell us to expect so marvellous a place) and spending our third night at the best place of all, the very beautiful town of Levice to which I shall return. We stayed at a very pleasant hotel, staffed by nice people, the U Leva.

The next morning was Sunday and while my friend slept I went to Mass. I couldn't understand the words, of course, and felt as always that this was something very different from the Mass as it was said from the time of the conversion of Europe to the early 1960s when Mass in the vernacular came in. It is the reason why the Catholic Church unlike the Orthodox, does not feel old, but seems as if it dates from the John F Kennedy epoch. I thought these thoughts, tried to pray and studied the faces of the agricultural labourers who made up the congregation, mostly over forty, more women than men. How very fine it is to live or even to visit a country where believing in God is not a lifestyle choice but as normal as the sun rising each morning and, importantly, where religion is a real religion, full of saints and rules, not polite, understated Anglicanism.

On our fourth and last day we had the most beautiful journey to Vienna. I usually prefer the works of man to those of God usually but the avenues of trees, their leaves turning a bright orange, which strongly reminded me of cathedral quires, were more beautiful than any. No one wrote a poem as beautiful as leaves in autumn.

We came by chance on the Liptov village museum, founded in 1991, where village buildings and a church - most from a village flooded to make way for a reservoir -have been collected. Every Sunday they have a concert of folk music and stalls home-made excellent food and drink. We luckily were the only foreigners. Then drove through the Tatras towards Vienna.
Spiš castle
Concert at Liptov village museum which we found by accident