Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Snow

I think it was Princess Martha Bibescu who said that the Romanians are a Latin race whose home should be in the South and every winter seems to strike them with horror and astonishment. Or words to that effect.  This winter came in late January so the surprise was greater than usual.

Winters have been mostly rather mild in the last fifteen years here, at least in comparison with my first two: the winters of 1990-91 and 1998-99. The streets of Bucharest near my office in Piata Victoriei, opposite the Prime Minister in the Victoria Palace, become unfordable rivers when it rains. When there is heavy snow the snow is piled up to a great height on the pavements and these embankments of snow, put there by the city council workers who nowadays clear the main streets with snow ploughs, are much more of a hazard to the long-suffering pedestrians of Bucharest, the poor bloody infantry so to speak, than the snow itself or even the treacherous ice. By tomorrow morning crossing the roads to get to the office  will resemble a 1970s disaster movie.

What I hate about Romania

Asked what I liked about Romania I said everything, but this is not QUITE true. I hate it when Romanians speak U.S. English. I just met the word outage, which apparently means power cut and hate it very much. 

[When I complained I was told that David Cameron used it in the House of Commons. And he the grandson and nephew of two baronets. But he also referred to the Rev. Paul Flowers (the 'Crystal Methodist') in the House as 'the Rev. Flowers.']

I cannot persuade Romanians to say 'film' or 'lift' even though they have these very words in their language. 'Flat' instead of 'apartment' is not worth even mentioning, as the Romanian word is 'apartament', but I am proud that I have taught fourteen Romanians to pronounced the first syllable in 'schedule' as 'shed', telling them that by so doing they will irritate Americans. I was alerted to this idea for harmless fun by Saul Bellow's The Dean's December, in which the first person narrator, stranded in Bucharest as Bellow once was, complains that Romanians use an anachronistic kind of British English and words like 'frightfully'. 

'Frightfully' is a word I like to use from time to time and which should be saved from extinction.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Transformation of a Post-Communist Country Documented in Haunting Photos

Almost 25 years later, the country of Romania is still in the midst of a difficult transformation from one of the region’s hardest dictatorships to a modern European nation. A transformation that photographer Tamas Dezso masterfully captures in his series Notes for an Epilogue.
These pictures are very much worth seeing and give me ideas for writing. 

Saturday, 18 January 2014

I finished The Broken Road and loved it

Reading Patrick Leigh Fermor's The Broken Road, the final volume in his account of his walk aged 18 across Europe in 1934, is like feeling a fresh spring breeze. It reminds me of Aristotle's definition of happiness as bloom upon the cheek of youth.  It reminds me too of why I am in South-Eastern Europe and how much I love Romania and Bucharest, because after fifteen years here I am still a tourist. But let's start with Constantinople.

After taking over a year to walk there from the Hook of Holland, we now learn from The Broken Road that Patrick Leigh Fermor stayed in the city he (rightly) always called Constantinople only ten days before setting off again for Greece, where he was to make his life. He said he never left Constantinople without a lightening of the heart. This is all the more telling because he saw it when it was still Constantinople, by which I mean still the Ottoman city made of wood and many Greeks still lived there. 

When I first saw the city in 1990 it was a great anticlimax. I arrived by train from Budapest and I had just seen and fallen in love with Romania. Hungary, where I had watched the red star being winched from the top of the Parliament building and Bulgaria were also fascinating though much less so than Romania. Istanbul was sort of Third World, but with Mars bars and Coca Cola, the International Herald Tribune and all mod cons it meant coming back to the West. 

Since then on many visits I  keep changing my mind about the place. I had a Lithuanian friend who lived there, in a flat facing the Golden Horn, who a long time said it was the most wonderful city in Europe. The last time I was with him there he said he had moved from hating it to complete indifference. I, on the other hand, on my last two or three visits, decided I loved it, despite the fact that it is no longer multiracial, has been rebuilt in concrete and the traffic is impossible. But I love it away from the tourist-crowded bits. I love working-class Fatih, full of barbershops, cafes where men sit eating falafel on little stools and wondrous mosques sans tourists.

Fermor's passion for mediaeval history and old churches and his knowledge of Ancient Greek gave him a great dislike of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey. Turkish rule destoyed the social structure and the upper classes of Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia, though Fermor speculates that paying heavy taxes to the Porte rather than being directly ruled by the Sultan might have done Wallachia and Moldavia just as much harm. It may well be that Turkish administration was even worse than administration by native princes, with rule by Phanariots being somewhere in between. I just don't know. On the other hand had Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece not liberated themselves the First World War would not have come about or at least not where and when it did. The First World War was the Third Balkan War. 

Fermor did not love Constantinople, but on the other hand he did love Bucharest, as do I, even after fifteen years here. Oddly enough though, the chapter on Bucharest is one of the weakest in the book. It does read at times, as he himself admits, like an article from The Tatler. Yet the chapter is terribly interesting for those of us who live in Bucharest; one cannot imagine a Tatlerish Bucharest now. How different Bucharest was in 1934 - not least in the upper class circles where he moved, after putting up by mistake for a few days at a bordello called Pisica Vesela, where the girls made friends with him.

On his first full day in Bucharest he enters a cafe on Calea Victoriei and feels a revulsion from the well dressed customers, who looked 
'shiny and commercial despite their rice-paper cheeks. I had the illusion that the talk of this gleaming and overupholstered Babylon consisted entirely of sneers.
That sounds like some Bucuresteni of the present day but Fermor has a remarkable gift for inspiring friendship in total strangers and in the cafe he meets a man who takes him to the opera and after that to a grand party and from then on he is lionised by the aristocracy. He also had many introductions from his time moving from castle to castle in Transylvania as described in the second volume of his travels. 

He says
there was a strong bohemian, anti-conventional and un-pompous strain in the section of the Romanian world in which I now found myself.
That describes quite a number of my close Romanian friends, but I have been very lucky indeed. Most Romanians are very different, very conventional, very unbohemian, sometimes even a little pompous. 

Of course he is describing a class most of which has gone now. Most of the 'historic centre' of Bucharest, i.e. the part built from 1880 to 1914, as a taxi driver reminded me the other day, was built by and for a class of people who left the country after the war if they could - not the upper classes only but the upper middle classes and the business class. Bohemiansim in 1934 in Romania and in England was confined to a minority of the upper classes and a tiny minority of metropolitan intellectuals. Since then it became much more common in England, but is very rare in Romania.

The Romania of the elite in 1934 had great style, we learn. Nowadays the elite - the rich and powerful, if they are the elite - are singularly lacking in style. In fact, Romania has so many wonderful charms but style is not one of them. Another reason why Romania should restore the monarchy. The peasants clad in costume are gone too but much about the countryside remains much the same or did until a moment ago. 

Apart from two chapters on Romania the book is about Bulgaria and very good indeed. I liked it all the more because even though I do not think I know Bulgaria very well I had been to all the places he visited. He describes Plovdiv and Veliko Tarnovo well and thinks Sofia a pleasant village. How lucky he was to get there in time - before modernity. 

Reading his Roumeli in memoriam just after he died has made me decide that Greece is still worth visiting, despite the affluence and tourism that have altered it out of recognition from the shepherd-strewn Balkan kingdom he knew. I shall try to find the profound Greece, if it still exists, far from motorways and airports. The profound Romania is everywhere and I must visit it much more before it too goes.



More on The Broken Road here.


Friday, 17 January 2014

One quarter of Bucharest's population are not on Facebook

Only 1.4 million people in Bucharest are on Facebook. That means half a million aren't. I suppose that includes the many people who do not have access to a computer or smartphone, the old, the illiterate, the homeless, the people in gaol and a few introverts.

I who was very badly adicted indeed - posting up to six or seven posts a day - have suspended my account for more than two weeks and am loving the time and space I have. More difficult is not to use the internet at the weekend and in the evening but I am having some success with this too. The result, I have finished two great books I had set aside as I set aside most books because of the internet and I feel alive. The internet seduces you by stimulating thought but drains you of life, enervates you.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Patrick Leigh Fermor at last reaches Bucharest

I am loving Patrick Leigh Fermor's chapter on Bucharest in The Broken Road. I find this city spell-binding and am pleased that he did so. I gave up hope that we would ever read his description, to set beside his description of Budapest in Between the Woods and the Water, Then after his death we were told that the final volume in his trilogy had almost been completed. In fact it is a very much unfinished and not at all like his finished work - which makes it much easier to read quickly. At least now we have it, although not in the final form which would have satisfied him.

I find I cannot put this book down. I emphatically do not agree with the man in my local English-language bookshop, who told me the other day that it should not have been published. I tend to agree with the friend last night who prefers it to the earlier two books. I find that because it is not finished it is easier to read. Reading Fermor's wonderful Ruskinian prose can sometime be, as Tennyson described reading Ben Jonson, like swimming in treacle.

Fermor arouses in me for the first time an interest in Bulgaria, whose gentle charm for me has been an acquired taste. I acquired it in the end but only now do I feel an interest in the place. Fermor at the time he travels through Bulgaria has never set foot in Greece, which is to be his great love, but we see his philhellenism prefigured in his liking for Bulgaria and his distaste for Turkey and Islam. Perhaps this is why, having walked from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, as he rightly always called it, he spent only ten days there before setting off for Greece and Mount Athos.

I enjoy reading Fermor because he makes me remember why I am living in Romania, which is because I fell in love with the country when I first came in the autumn of 1990. I still am in love with her, though it is a married love now, not a schoolboy infatuation. I am delighted that Fermor shared my enthusiasm for Romania and for Bucharest.

I also see that, like him, it is old churches that make me want to travel more than anything else. This is the reason why Burma a week ago did not move me as I had hoped. Pagodas and Buddhist temples are just not  so interesting or remotely so beautiful as churches, especially the monasteries of the Balkans. 

I have been telling family and friends for fifteen years to come to Romania before it is spoilt but I have not followed my own advice and have seen far too little of the provinces. From now on I shall stay around here.

Here 'The Broken Road' is reviewed by the wonderful Neal Ascherson and here by William Dalrymple, who is a writer comparable to Fermor.

I somehow missed reading Artemis Cooper's Life of Fermor which came out a year ago and which I shall hurry to get. Hardbacks seem scarce but I do not want to read it in paperback. I did read this intriguing review. I am not sure whether the reviewer knows much about Fermor though, as he says,
He sometimes slept rough in stables and barns but this was interspersed, we now learn, with sojourns in the castles and country houses of the eccentric, amusing, minor nobility. (My italics.)

Anyone who has read Fermor's books knew that. He himself likens his journey to Surtees' Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour.  Somerset Maugham apparently described him as "a middle-class gigolo for upper-class women". That might contain a scintilla of truth, unfortunately. A gigolo, though, if that is what he was, who was a prose stylist to compare with Sir Thomas Browne.

I write more about The Broken Road here.

Monday, 13 January 2014

An extraordinary reduction in world poverty over 36 years

Capitalism works! Or perhaps, more exactly, the combination of free enterprise and free trade works. 

26.8% of world’s population lived on $1 or less (in 1987 dollars) in 1970 - only 5.4 % in 2006.

Please see the evidence here, to which my attention was drawn by Toby Young here.

Had it not been for the disastrous hiatus of 1914-1945 and the popularity after 1917 of collectivism the world might have reached this happy juncture sooner. The Victorians deserve a huge apology from so many of their critics. Free trade and free enterprise are nothing if not Victorian values.

On the other hand, economic growth is another way of saying progress and a conservative, unlike a liberal, socialist or fascist, must feel a certain ambivalence about progress. Progress is, on the whole, good - a conservative is not a blind reactionary - but so much is lost. As the world becomes richer, safer and more law-abiding it also becomes duller. Travel now, gentle reader, while there is still time.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Ariel Sharon has died - he married two sisters from Brasov

After eight years in a coma (how time flies) Ariel Sharon has died. I did not know he married two sisters from Brasov. The story is here.
A young general in 1969, before he became obese.
The Daily Telegraph, as usual, has a peerless obituary. I was interested to learn that Menachem Begin said of Sharon: 
'He’s a brilliant general, but a vicious man.'
He will be remembered for three things. 

During the 1982 Lebanon War, while Sharon was Israeli Defence Minister, between 800 and 3,500 Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps were killed by the Lebanese Christian Phalange. An official Israeli government enquiry found that the entry of the Phalangists into the camps was personally approved by Sharon. 

After the huge bloodshed in Iraq and Syria, these massacres, alas, no longer cause much outrage even among Arabs. This is so obvious that, surprisingly, even an article in a Saudi newspaper makes the point. The article says,


"...we find that, despite the horrific acts of massacre he carried out against the Palestinians, the number of his Arab victims is nowhere near that of the number of Arabs who have been murdered by tyrannical Arab [rulers] or killed in suicide bombings carried out by Arab terrorist groups. This is the truth, whose shame will haunt us throughout history."

In 2000 Sharon's visit to the holy Muslim site in Jerusalem, the Temple Rock, is usually thought to have caused the Second Intifada, the second uprising by Palestinian Arabs. This however is disputed. It may well have been planned anyway.

In 2005 he pulled Israeli forces out of the Gaza Strip.

When I heard the news that Sharon had died, Belloc's lines ran through my mind,
'While all of his acquaintance sneered and slanged.
I wept: for I had longed to see him hanged.'
But perhaps this is too harsh. Begin and Shamir really did deserve hanging for their terrorism under British rule, yet they signed the Camp David accord that made peace with Egypt and Jordan. Sharon did pull out of Gaza. Could he have achieved a peaceful solution to the Palestinian problem had he not had his stroke shortly afterwards? Probably not but possibly - nobody knows.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

'Feminism is poison'

Today, 106 years ago, Simone de Beauvoir was born. She was the lover of Jean-Paul Sartre, the French Communist philosopher whose nihilism so impressed the young Pol Pot, when he was a young man in Paris.

She said, when asked in an interview if women should be allowed to stay home,

"No, we don’t believe that any woman should have this choice. No woman should be authorised to stay at home to raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one. It is a way of forcing women in a certain direction."
Her ideas have since triumphed. This happened when under pressure from feminists lenders started taking into account wives' incomes as well as husbands' when calculating mortgage loans.

It seems to me that modern feminism, meaning her variety, has been a great enemy to women. It seems incompatible with belief in God. It is essentially atheistic. It is based on the premise that biological differences are arbitrary, not God-given. 

It is also clear that feminism and the contraceptive pill between them are bringing about the death of Europe. Margaret Thatcher was right when she said
Feminism is poison.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Simon Hoggart was hated by Tony Benn

Simon Hoggart has died. I remember his sketches in Punch which I read in the school library a weekly joy, the only thing in that magazine that I liked. I found it inexplicable that so sensible a man was not a Conservative. 

I thought this from one of his last pieces was worth quoting:
To be loathed by Tony Benn is something any political writer of my age would sell their grannies for. I feel humbled by his hatred. He got almost everything wrong – not least the cuckoo behaviour that helped usher in Margaret Thatcher’s long reign. Or take his trip to the Chinese embassy after Mao’s death, recorded in an earlier volume of his diaries. He says that he was “a great admirer of Mao … he made mistakes, because everybody does”. True enough. I certainly do. But my mistakes do not make me possibly the greatest mass killer in history. Here are the figures: Number of innocent people who died in the Great Leap Forward, through Mao’s policies for the countryside and from mass executions: between 40 and 65 million. Number of deaths caused by me: 0. But Benn greatly admired Mao.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Last day in Burma



I wanted so badly to stay longer in Burma and my prayer was answered by being forced to
stay another 24 hours - and thus scarcely see Peking. Be careful what you wish for because it comes true but I got to see Bago/Pegu and a lot of Burmese countryside. This is a deeply traditional, lovely country and I can easily imagine people loving it. It has no Coca Cola or pepsi, no chocolates or sweets, not even local brands and probably the country has changed little since the 1950s. 

I recommend my excellent Anglo-Burmese Mike (actually he has French and Armenian blood too). He can be reached on 
zawzaw258@gmail.com
One of the temples in Bago (Burmese Buddhist temples remind me slightly for some reason of fairground rides in the Southend of my youth):






Yet the East leaves me, for some reason, rather unmoved, even in the Havana-like slums of Rangoon where I stayed, or in the bar of the Strand Hotel, sinking rum sours. At the latter I had great fun reading the Rangoon Gazette 1912 Christmas edition containing a story by by my grandfather's favourite author, William Le Queux, set in Shepheard's Hotel, Cairo, fascinating advertisements for tailors and shipping timetables covering the Empire. So recent, so unimaginably long ago.

But the streets of Rangoon are fascinating, especially yesterday when because it was Independence Day, they were used for football matches and children's games. Benches closed the streets to pedestrians. People live in squalid rooms - balconies are full of accumulated miscellanea and washing. There are shrines to the Buddha in side streets.

Even Rangoon airport is charming. It has only five runways and the VIP Lounge - dread words, a quotation from Wallace Arnold that people might not understand is intended to be ironic - does a very good line in various Burmese dishes including chicken and coconut soup and sticky cakes, the ubiquitous weak coffee and much obsequiousness on the part of the ladies who work here. I sit here hammering away at this. My plane is late but the ladies advise me it is best to check if my plane arrives by looking out of the window not looking at the scree. I suppose this was how Asia used to be before the war and the coming of American hegemony.

The ladies gave me bad advice. Other people seem to have an instinct that keeps them in herds and this instinct I seem to lack. When I finally insisted they check that my plane was not about to go their call resulted in a furious Burmese appearing in the VIP lounge, spitting at me 'Flight closed' and forcing me to run across the airport. 

Friday, 3 January 2014

Burmese Days


When I am on a journey, all ties suddenly fall away. I feel myself quite unburdened, disconnected, free - There is something in it marvellously
uplifting and invigorating. Whole past epochs suddenly return: nothing is lost, everything still full of inception, enticement. Stefan Zweig, Journeys

I liked Rangoon a lot especially the lack of sights. Then the most incredibly boneshaking train journey - like being bounced all night in an amusement arcade ride called the Train of
Death, has brought me to the absolutely wonderful Bagan/Pagan. The hotel had not got a room for me but are giving me someone else's. I suspect everything in Burma is a bit like this.


There are over two thousand pagodas built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Bagan. They look at first sight like Victorian municipal buildings in England. I still cannot decide if they are beautiful, but they are very striking and romantic. They do not seem spiritual at all, unlike any architecturally undistinguished Balkan monastery. My guide Yan yesterday explained that this is because Buddhism is very down to earth.


How poor everyone is in Burma. My Jewish-Romanian Princess friend loves the obsequiousness of Asiatics and I know what she means. It's the pleasantly feudal atmosphere that Prof. Lord Pinkrose enjoyed about Romania in Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy.

I came to Burma not from interest in the place but to find somewhere not yet spoilt by tourism and economic growth. To some extent I am just about in time but the world and his wife are in Bagan for the Christmas season.  Though it will be much worse next year and the year after.

How repellent, physically and morally, tourists in their 50s and 60s are. One shies away from them but I attract them since I am now 52. They have the impertinence to think I am one of them. I remember a beautiful, bitchy friend of mine, Clare, whom I met again at the age of 35 after our not being on speakers for five years, said to me, 
'How awful everyone looks at our age!'
What does she think now, I wonder? I know exactly what she thinks, of course. 

And people in their 50s are so unexciting, so - well, frankly, vulgar. There are a few exceptions of course, such as my friends - and people in their 20s admittedly are dull, except for intelligent and decorative girls. But it is the moral shortcomings of people in their 50s that sadden me most. I see beautiful energetic people in their 20s turn into Romanian simulacra of bankers in their 30s and oh the dullness. Older people lack moral seriousness, are materialistic and boring - in most cases.

One can never have too many old churches but one can have too many old pagodas, I discovered today. Am off for some more of the most wonderful lassee I ever drank - discovered today at a Burmese restaurant kept by a Frenchwoman. At lunch there another Frenchwoman told me that Buddhism explains Burma's lack of spirituality. We talk about Mircea Eliade, whom she loves, and agree that we travel to explore our subconscious minds. She is reading, and recommends, Stefan Zweig's Journeys.

She visited India twenty years ago and has been spending two holidays a year there ever since. Though in the last five years India has changed in ways she does not like which is why she came here but Burma does not have any of the appeal for her of India. 

I admired her for finding somewhere she truly loved and then remembered that this is exactly how I felt about Romania when I first visited in 1990 and now I have lived there for fifteen years. She imagined there could be no places more different than Burma and Romania but this is far from true. Both countries were socialist dictatorships cut off from the world and economic disasters. Both are rural and, despite the left-wing regimes or in fact because of the economic stagnation that left-wing economics causes, both are profoundly old-fashioned and very poor, though Romania is vastly richer than Burma. One of the differences is that Burma does not have manufacturing industry or pollution.

By a pagoda a British couple in their 60s told me Buddha told his disciples to ignore reincarnation and concentrate on this life. He was no more a Buddhist than Marx was a Marxist or Jesus a Christian - in fact much less so. Before statues of the Buddha Burmese pray but to whom are they praying? He is dead and did not think there was any reason to believe in God.

Dr. Johnson said that outside the Christian and Mahometan worlds all was barbarism. Whether or not this is true - it's probably not - I do not really dig Asia, except for the Muslim parts and no doubt the Christian parts. I don't know why. Perhaps it is just not intelligible to me. Islam is intelligible - it is a sort of distorted Christianity.

Actually, I suddenly think I understand. It is probably not about religion, or if it is only indirectly. The East to me is not romantic. Zanzibar and the Island of Mozambique are. Ethiopia, on the horizon of the Ancient World, is. The Middle East of course is, except for the oil-rich parts. Burma is not. Nor is the Far East. But why not, I wonder. Why are the mysterious pagodas and temples of Bagan not exactly romantic, when the temples of Ancient Egypt are? In fact I have just pushed the question further back without answering it at all.