Friday, 28 August 2015

Taking a fresh look at Warren Harding, Jimmy Carter and other US presidents

When I studied this subject at university I thought American historians were not up to much compared with British ones. It does seem as if judgements by historians on US presidents, and American historians are very keen indeed on awarding presidents marks, are wildly inaccurate.

Buchanan is unjustly maligned. He, rightly in my opinion, thought the Federal Government did not have the authority to prevent the South seceding and his view would have prevented the Civil War. I like Andrew Johnson for wanting to conciliate the South. Despite his racism and belief in eugenics Coolidge was in many ways a good president, who did very little. Hoover was an interventionist in economics who anticipated the New Deal - was this good or bad?

I read a persuasive article in the New York Times praising Mr Carter yesterday and a very interesting article today in the same paper that praises Warren Harding.
In October 1921, Harding traveled to Birmingham, Ala., where, in a powerful speech to a mixed-race (though segregated) audience, he demanded justice for African-Americans. In the first speech in the South by a sitting president on race, he argued for full economic and political rights for all African-Americans. Pat Harrison, a Democratic senator from Mississippi, was aghast. If Harding’s views “were carried to its ultimate conclusion,” he said, “that means that the black man can strive to become president of the United States.”
This is in sharp contrast to the views of Coolidge and Hoover as well as Democrats.  

Wilson of course was a great believer in segregation. Almost all presidents before Kennedy were opposed to racial equality including Lincoln. According to Ronald Kessler, Lyndon Lyndon Johnson told two unnamed Southern governors 

I'll have them nig-ers voting Democratic for the next two hundred years. 
If true this does not mean LBJ was insincere in his views on civil rights. Most African Americans had voted Democratic, in presidential elections, since 1936 (71% of them did so then) and certainly since 1948 so Johnson was not so much winning black voters as losing white ones.

Wilson told jokes about darkies, mimicking their accent, in cabinet. Coolidge thought the Nordic race deteriorated when mixed with other races. Hoover thought 

one white man was worth two to three coloured people even at simple tasks like shovelling. 
Truman, like Wilson and LBJ a Southerner, said he did not care to live near negroes and opposed the civil rights movement, which he considered, perhaps rightly, to have been instigated by communists. 

Eisenhower told jokes about blacks that would be considered racist these days but I think he was benign enough. He told Chief Justice Earl Warren that the southern whites 
are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes.
I stumbled today on what to me was news that Eisenhower's mother was of mixed race. I remember Americans have told me that in America, even if you are only one eighth black, you count as black (an octoroon) and that therefore Pushkin, by American standards, was black. It seems that so was President Eisenhower. He was probably an octoroon too.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Finding the open coast in Albania








I stayed three or four miles away from where this picture was taken, in the beach at Durres, a place which was empty coastline in 1998 and now is the great Albanian seaside place, the equivalent in Romania of Mamaia. Why do I hate seaside resorts so much? Because I grew up in one?Yes. Because I hate the masses, because I can't stand families, because I dislike battery farms, because I want hidden obscure things? Because I dislike modern unintellectual unironic normal life?

I came here to escape the heat of Tirana. My desktop tells me it's 19 degrees Celsius in Bucharest which reminds me I came to Albania to escape the heat of Romania.

The hotel I stayed kin one of thousands is full and gimcrack but next door but one was a black of luxury flats with a swimming pool and a nice restaurant. Pasta or risotto with fresh seafood cost less than ten euros with wine and the use of the pool was three euros. Not expensive but I had it almost to myself all day. In case you decided to stay in Durres beach (I don't recommend it unless you like beach resorts full of families) it's name is Alibi.

At 5.30 Tomi picked me up and took me south until the buildings petered out. 85% of the buildings along the coast are illegal. Not only do they not have planning permission but the owners often do not have title to the land which belongs to the state. All along the coast are tunnels and military installations. Albanians when they go to the coast prefer the Ionian sea where the sea or clearer and there are no mosquitoes. The coast south of Durres is popular with middle aged foreigners and the owners of the improvised restaurants and hotels do not advertise them in the Albanian media for fear of attracting the evil eyes of the authorities.
Embedded image permalink


A solitary fisherman with a net caught nothing, he said.


I had promised Tomi and Osman dinner in Tirana but instead we had a much better one than the best restaurant could have afforded back in town. Freshly caught fish, eaten outside a shack on the beach, a mile from the nearest village - simply delicious. Eaten with good Montenegrin wine. 


We stayed until the mosquitoes arrived and then fled. Tomi never sleeps on the coast here because of the mosquitoes. The hotels in Durres have netting on the windows but eating after dark outside is not a good idea,


I wanted to go to Albania very much in 80s when the whole coast was untouched - of course it was only possible in guided tours watched carefully by secret police but that would have added to the fun. A friend of mine who did this in 1979 said that only very interesting people took such tours - interesting people and Stalinists but Stalinists were interesting too. Albania until 1991 had statues of Stalin dotted around, of course. I left it very late but it is still in this year of grace 2015 an exciting strange place. As Romania was ten or fifteen years ago.

And like Romania ten years ago it has wonderful food, Everything is bio - the tomatoes and onions are poems - the fish and meat is wonderful. 

And people think and talk and behave like human beings in the way they did in Western Europe forty or fifty years ago. How Albanians manage it so close to Greece and Italy I don't know.

Slaughtering lambs on the holy mountain




Today was a really astonishing day which makes me feel I am living in a 19th century lithograph. This is, of course, the ideal for which one travels but which one so rarely attains in our day. The English scholar-gentleman-gypsy. 

Tomi Luzati and Osman drove me from Berat to the annual Bektashi festival on Mount Tomori, where tens of thousands of families of Bektashis come, camp out, sacrifice and eat lambs and pray on the holy mountain. Some bring dead lambs, some buy them live from butchers who slaughter them. Once they climbed or came on horseback, now they come by car. On top of the mountain, the second highest in Albania,  a very holy man is buried. 

Bektashis are Sufis, devoted to the memory of Haji Bektash, a dervish who lived in thirteenth century Asia Minor. His cult was very popular with the Janissaries who were the equivalent in Ottoman Turkey of the Praetorian Guard in the Roman Empire. Like the Praetorian Guard chose emperors the Janissaries chose sultans and in 1827 the Sultan Mahmud II disbanded them. Many of the Janissaries were taken as boys from Albanian families and they sought refuge in Albania. Almost a century later another moderniser, Kemal, expelled the dervish brotherhood (think Greenmantle) from Turkey and they made Albania their headquarters. Albania seemed a natural choice until the Communists took over and in the Cultural Revolution (Albania was Mao's ally) made religious practices illegal.

Tomi, who is one, says Bektashis like rakia, pork meat and enjoying the life. This is his philosophy but another Bektashi confirmed this. Sufism is the mysticism of Islam and it seems in every way more attractive than the dour Calvinism of orthodox Mahometanism. I am sorry to say that there have been no whirling dances in Albania since the Communists took over. Bektashis are Alawites, like President Assad of Syria, although not all Alawites are Bektashis. Their religion is secret in part. A Turkish friend told me that the Alawis have a secret, passed from one to another orally but not written down and my friend had an Alawite friend who revealed it to him: Ali is God.

This, if it is true, and the role of alcohol in their religious rite, might be the reasosn that Sunnis sometimes call the Bektashis 'little Christians'. 

Several years ago an English journalist friend, living in Belgrade, posted on Facebook a picture he took at the festival of a young boy, his cheeks smeared with blood, eating raw lamb. My friend told me that the festival was this weekend but there was nothing about it on the net in English. The travel agency in Tirana said it was not an organised festival, it was not official and they couldn't help me with it or confirm even when it took place. Luckily I found Tomi, friend of a friend, instead.

Tomi, Osman and I drove for an hour through idyllic countryside, the countryside of Greek gods and wood nymphs, till we left the made road and spiralled up the mountain on a track which took another hour of vertiginour views, Tomi told me that in other years the cars get jammed and people have to walk to the plateau where the festival happens. However the Albanian police had said on the radio that there should be no problems this year and we made it all the way. The policemen we met were smiling broadly and wore sunglasses. This year there were no problems.

Lambs, hundreds of them, herded, being slaughtered, being cut open, cooked and eaten. I couldn't help remembering Paul Potter's lines

All over London

There are chickens on spits

And this, say the chickens,

Is their Auschwitz.

I didn't see anyone eating raw lamb, not did the people I spoke to know about this, though the Bradt guide mentions it. Bektashis' foreheads are smeared with the blood of the lamb. I think Armenians sacrifice lambs in a similar way for Easter.

Almost everyone rests content with staying on the plateau where they camp out. Today was the first day but thousands had camped out last night. The more determined used to climb to the summit and this would take some hours. Tomi who has never done this himself had told me this is what I should have to do and I was on for it, though rather dreading it as I am not fit. Instead I got talking to a charming Albanian from islington who works as a beautician in Harrod's and she and her family  took me up in their four wheel drives to the very top. There stands a little hermitage and I was blessed by their charming imam. 

I was happy because I thought I was a traveller not a tourist, a man of letters even, but quite a few of the Albanians lived in Greece, Italy or North London.This is not the hermit kingdom of Hoxha. I missed that.

For primitive man man seeking the transcendent without a revelation, mountains were always very sacred. This religion is much older than Islam of course or any religion that was written down.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Tirana and Tomi

Only a fool goes to Greece or smartly-painted Croatia or Montenegro when, for a short time longer, the real thing exists in Albania.


I decided on Friday that after five weeks of dog days in Bucharest I had to get away. One has to be guided by ones heart and my heart didn't want Malta or Copenhagen or crowded Rome or even cool raining England. I found a very cheap flight - such things used not to exist before Air Serbia became a budget airline - and came to Albania. I have intended to each summer since I first came here eight years ago. For five years I have not kept my promise but now I am thankful to be here. I shall come back each year from now on.


I came without making plans but a dear friend who used to live here put me in touch with Tomi and this proved providential.


Tomi is an architect who works on all sorts of projects for international organisations. He even worked on one about gender equality, a subject he seems to find slightly amusing.  He also dedicates his time to 'enjoying the life' which involves spending much of the summer on the beach or roaming the countryside, often from his kindness showing lucky people round. He bought some wonderful Albanian wine from a shop which the owner of the bar we went to let him drink there - it's better, he explained, than the Italian wines that are just colourings and water. And it really was. The bar was fully of lovely, pretty flirty twenty-something girls - just like Bucharest was while Romanians had to get visas to go to the European Union. Like Romania the girls are comely and the men less handsome.
Tirana is nowadays clean and pretty. An odd achievement since it is the poorest capital in Europe and has grown from a population of 160,000 in 1990 to a million. Old men in dark suits and fezes. Narrow faces. 

I am so lucky. Two weeks ago the temperature was 46 degrees Celsius says Tomi but while I was in Belgrade on my way here the weather broke and it is an acceptable 28 or 30. Nevertheless I decided to stick to my plan to escape to the mountains and the lakes. Tomi decides to take me and show me around.

Tirana at night had an astonishing vibe, utterly unlike anywhere else. Unlike Romania it's effortlessly cool. And it feels exciting. It was eight years ago when I was last in the city and it has even more bars and restaurants. The Italian fascist government buildings painted terracotta and ochre and the cool villas built before the war do not feel like anywhere else, nor the pyramid intended as a mausoleum to the Stalinist Maoist dictator Hozha. I know all the former Communist capitals and it's not like any of them. It's a bit like Turkey I suppose. Balkan certainly but not Yugoslav. Yugoslavia has the ersatz Westernness of a 1970s Yugoslav lounge lizard smoking a Western cigarette and wearing a gold medallion.

Tirana doesn't feel Western unlike the resort of Sarander, opposite horrible, overcrowded Corfu. Sarander is like the South of France. What does Tirana feel like? The imaginary capital of an imaginary country in a good, quirky thriller. That all I can answer.

A postcard from Lin



I am in Lin, a tiny village on the Albanian shore of Lake Ohrid. It has one tiny hotel where village boys drink beer. It has four rooms on the first floor and on the second floor lives the owner and his family. I am the only guest. The lake view from my terrace is as lovely as you can imagine. Sitting by the lake I have it to myself except for a lilting ballad or some folk-pop on the radio and chatter from locals at a table . A fisherman strenuously rows a boat across the dark blue, pellucid water.


Apart from the hotel there is one other place which has six rooms. One narrow street makes up the village and the lake is hidden behind the cottages, coming into sight only for moments.


Tomi said before we got here that Lin was a tourist village. Nothing could be less enticing but it scarcely is. Tourism is just starting and this is actually, I'm ashamed to say, an advantage. It means it has this one restaurant-hotel-bar, opened last summer. Three other places at least are being built. A coach party stopped here and passers by come here for lunch. Like the lovely bays I saw in 2008 that are now ruined this place will lose its charm in five years.


Tomi took me to Podradec a pleasant, well-mannered lakeside resort, Broadstairs not Margate, and then the nearby village of Tushemisht, where we ate fish and drank rakia and some good wine. After lunch Tomi showed me Hoxha's villa, one of three he had in the area, set where a mountain river enters the lake. Newly weds are being photographed. A restaurant with two handsome stuffed bears, one clapping. 

Tomi believes in 'enjoying the life' as he has done since he went AWOL while on a cultural delegation to Athens in the late 1980s and took advantage of perestroika to bed a young Russian girl. No doubt there was much more life to be enjoyed in Pogradec but I do not like resorts and prefer a couple of nights in Lin instead.

I went for a long walk along the lake this morning. Braying donkeys drawing carts full of hay, men picking dates, The whole bourgeois dream of authenticity. Poverty and tradition.

Lake Ohrid has the great advantage of not being warmer than the early 20s Celsius in August and the great advantage, on the Albanian side, of being some where unmediated, uncooked, where one can find oneself. There may be lakes equally beautiful in Sweden but they do not appeal. I am listening to folk music, the jazzed up kind that young Albanians like.


Friday, 7 August 2015

Red wine is good for you

A Glass Of Red Wine Is The Equivalent To An Hour At The Gym, Says New Study


This is a serious story in the press, I think. Click here and decide for yourself.

I recall that in 1990 a French professor of cardiology said that drinking 'a small amount' of red wine each day was beneficial for the heart. When he was asked what he meant by a small amount he said, 
'Oh, no more than a bottle or so.'
Yet some people, like my sister, deny that the French are the most civilised people in the world. 

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Weekend in the Delta

‎The habit of ignoring nature is deeply implanted in our times. I had to find some special occupation, some kind of work that would not force me to turn away from the sky and the stars, that would allow me to discover the meaning of life.
Marc Chagall

Rains finally came. The dog days came to a pause for two days but Bucharest was still hot. We drove to Tulcea - the quiet of a small town in a poor province on a summer afternoon - and took the speed boat to Chilia which gives its name to one of the three branches of the Danube delta. The Danube which is a polite city river when it runs through Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade finally polyfurcates before it reaches the Black Sea. The little visited delta is the place where Europe reaches an end. It's possibly the last truly wild part of the continent.


Green and cool.

Pelicans and storks. Wild horses. Wild boars. Even wild cats, that catch fish.

Chilia is separated from New Chilia, which is in Ukraine. Its factories are seen across the river but the ferry crossing was discontinued after the 1989 revolution. Many of the 4,000 inhabitants of Chilia have relatives in Ukraine, but do not see them. Anca Plesca tells me that to do so would not only involve  going to Tulcea to get ones passport stamped but paying $200 to have the customs opened up by Ukraine in order to receive them.

Mirel and Anca Plesca have opened a hotel in Chilia, called Limanul Resort, which has been recommended to us by glamorous friends in Bucharest. Anca Plesca, like most Romanians I know, was reared by her grandmother in a country village and this was her village.

We brought Claudiu Magris’s astonishingly good ‘Danube’ and several guidebooks. They recount the history of Chilia, an ancient place named after Achilles, but it has very little history. One monk left a record that slaves were embarked there in the eleventh century.  A reminder that slavery was universal in Europe at that time. It existed in what is now Romania until the time of the American Civil War, by which time gypsies were slaves. Ethnic Romanians were serfs until the same time.

That's almost it until the War of independence of 1877-78, so called, in which the Romanians were inveigled by the Czar to fight for Russia and Bulgaria. Romania's reward was to gain its nominal independence (it already had home rule from the Sublime Porte), to lose Bessarabia (approximately what is now the Moldovan Republic) to Russia and to be given in exchange a stretch of scantily populated coast called the Northern Dobrudgea which included most of the Danube Delta. The Dobrudgea had little connection with the Romanians but its Muslims, Greeks and Jews have mostly left by now and it has been Romanian-ised.

The Danube delta has 20,000 inhabitants making it the most sparsely populated area in Europe below the frozen north. It was and remains populated in large part by Lipoveni, Russians who had fled to the delta to escape religious persecution in the time of Peter the Great. Lipoveni are renowned for the beauty of their women and their almost limitless ability to drink vodka, tuica, beer, industrial alcohol. They can even drink the turbid waters of the Danube itself. They talk an archaic form of Russian and listen to Ukrainian pop music on transistor radios in the village bar.

But the delta is a place innocent of history and long in natural history. The delta is the third most important biosphere reserve, a term I don’t fully understand but which I think means home for flora and fauna. The Coral Reef is first. 

The joy of travelling in Romania is staying with peasants. 'Limanul Resort' is not that but it is something surprising - it is cool. Cool, until about five years ago, was unknown in Romania. I do not entirely approve but it makes a nice change from most Romanian hotels which are in the most terrible taste imaginable, unless built before Communism. The resort has been beautifully designed by a good architect and design means a lot. It's comfortable and though peasants charge only ten Euros the fifty Euros the hotel charges is not exorbitant. One of our group was shocked it was so cheap. He is used, he said, to comfortable hotels in Transylvania which charge twice as much. Poshness to my regret has come to Romania.

One drawback though. It is not on the water but a five minute walk away, close to Chilia's extraordinary church which is the highest orthodox church in Romania. Why so small a place has so imposing a church I don't know but I imagine that it was a statement that the Turks were no longer masters here. The Turks forbade high churches, which is the reason other churches in the Dobrudgea were built half-underground.

The food at the resort is very good. We ate a wonderful fish dish where the outside of the fish had been emptied and filled with minced fish meat. We had some good fish borsches. We drunk very much local tuica - plum brandy - but was it local? I saw no plum trees. It was at least weak and I drank several, usually a very unwise course of action. The others complained but I was thankful.

This is however not the right way to see the delta. The right way is camping by the shore of the water with mosquito repellent. We saw many people doing this as our speed boat took us through the delta. Solitary men who looked like hermits, visionaries or men on the run from the police. In fact in a country which is very conformist here is where the non-conformists go. They are the Romanian equivalent of hippies but a great improvement on hippies.

This is my sixth expedition to the delta. Once the delta was criss-crossed by natural water channels but more and more canals have been built. They are straight and at times they become dull. At other times, I was reminded of sailing a dhow in a mangrove swamp in the islands of Northern Mozambique. But all this is so close to Europe, is in Europe.


The rivulets are studded by fishermen’s cottages, which fishermen use only occasionally, and where benches are available in the shade. I read, my companions paddled, one of us, who was a professional photographer, took pictures.


The beautiful moments are the storks, pelicans, all manner of birds, which suddenly fly up from the reeds. The lakes are where the birds suddenly fly up en masse, driven by a divine impulse to find happiness.  

Outside the delta empires rose and fell. The Turks came and after many centuries left. The Communists did the same much more rapidly, but in the delta very little has changed. Florin, our boatman, regrets the passing of communism. He is a Lipovan in his fifties. Many or most people of his age and education in Romania feel the same and he is probably right, from his point of view. The Lipoveni always had plenty to eat even in the 1980s.


Florin takes us to the little wooden monastery of St Athanasius, which I first visited years ago. It was founded by some monks in the early 1990s who, looking for a site, got talking to a local fisherman who donated his land for the monastery. Six monks live there now and a charming man called Emil, who dedicates half his year to helping the monks and the other half to working in Italy to make enough money to keep himself. Monasteries appeal to Romanians and lots of people come and go. I’d like to stay there but one can only stay by permission and the monk I speak to didn’t seem keen on extending an invitation to me, even though Emil told him that my companion had made a substantial donation to a monastery in Bucharest.

There are, Emil says, a number of hermits living in the delta, saying Mass alone. Two of them come to this monastery for food from time to time. The others subsist by themselves. Since I first set foot on Romanian soil in 1990 I have been enchanted by the place but now I start to see that it is the other worldly religiosity of the people, their mysticism, that makes this country so remarkable. All our life long we go from one spot of holy ground to another, according to John Updike. This is even more true in Romania than elsewhere.


When I go next time I’ll not go to the Sulina channel I prefer the part of the 'old Danube channel' and Mila 23. It’s more than a decade since I first stayed there and it has become more now touristified. We heard the little towns of Sulina and Sf. Gheorghe are in the same case. PSD politicians have bought the land and development is going on, though slowly. 

Our third and last day was a beautiful trip via Mila 23 to Tulcea and then a drive through small roads to the great seaside resort of Mamaia. The heat was intense. It was Sunday. We stopped at the famous mosque at Babadag, the oldest in Romania.  Absolute silence in the insufferably hot little place. The mosque is closed. So was the Museum of Oriental (meaning Muslim) Art and Artefacts. No-one was insight except for two boys who pleaded with us for a leu (15p). One said there were no problems between Muslims and Christians in the town. The Muslims were gypsies, by the way. This is not the story I'd read about that week in the press, which said the Muslim gypsies are ostracised by the other ethnic groups in the town, the Romanians, Tatars, Lipoveni, Hungarians, Greeks and even the rest of the gypsies.


On we drove and came at last to the ruined Roman city of Histria. Histria is, as Dr. Johnson said of the Giants’ Causeway, worth seeing but not worth going to see. But we were only ten miles away. Some pillars, some statues, a lot of communist renovation. The sea is not in sight to give a lonely melancholy to the place, but a melancholy and sense of desertion exists. Two charming students, the girl a shy beauty who does not know she is good-looking, gave us a questionnaire to fill in about how we would react if we saw a frog, a snake, a fox or a scorpoion among the ruins. i felt loving and pure saying I would interact in a friendly way with each. Some benighted people ticked the box that said they would kill the snake. British twenty-year old students, even making allowance for the fact that they are science side not arts side, would not be nearly so innocent as these two.


I shall go back but next time to stay in simple places and find somewhere in the little dead town of Sulina. Sulina is a place that was briefly important after an international Danube Commission was housed there at the end of the (first) Crimean War and until the harbour silted up. One of my friends once spent a week there. When she came back I asked her if Sulina had a beach and she replied, apologetically,

Yes it has, but it's completely uncommercialised.

i must hurry in the hope that this is still the case.