Tuesday 30 April 2013

Boring is another word for peaceful

And vice versa.

I owe this insight to Alain De Botton who said that his native Switzerland is boring but boring is another word for peaceful.

I am glad I read this before I went there. I had avoided the place which, until then, was on my very short list of countries I didn't want to visit, with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the USA and the Gulf states. Armed with this insight, I found Switzerland almost delightful, although villages in the Transylvanian Alps are much more interesting than the prosperous villages in the real ones. 

I also find the insight is useful in many contexts. It is an entire philosophy of life, that perhaps I shall one day adopt. Many around me have.

Hamlet, speaking about Denmark, said something germane.
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.

I have an English friend who enjoys living in Bulgaria. I asked him if he didn't find it boring and he simply said

I have a very high boredom threshold.

I think I have a rather low boredom threshold, which is one reason why I like living in Romania. Romania is never boring. Not for one moment. Even the accounting system, the one thing about the country that I do not enjoy, is never boring. It is full of surprises.

Sunday 28 April 2013

Monasteries close to Bucharest: Cernica, Plătăreşti and Negoiesti

Three churches in the heat yesterday with Mihai, within twenty miles of Bucharest. Cernica, Plătăreşti and  Negoiesti.

Cernica I have been to a couple of times before. It is close to Bucharest and therefore well-known. Cernica is a monastery , in a beautiful setting on a lake, which contains three churches, the principal one being early 19th century.  The lake has good fishing and besides the monastery is a forest. When I first came in 1999, the village felt very remote but it now has a certain number of big houses built in the usual deplorable style, one imagines, inhabited by customs officials and colonels of police.

Across the lake, one owner of a large house is burning tyres, which make that unmistakable dark heavy smoke. I wonder why people burn tyres. Dogs sleep in the hot sun. This, despite the big houses far off, is a lovely serene place, the profound Romania.


Plătăreşti, painting of St Mercurie

Plătăreşti under a Mexican sun. The church dates from 1646, in the reign of Matei Basarab, and was fortified against the Turk. It  needs renovation. The outer wall of the monastery is in great disrepair. In the curtilage of the monastery four old women, dressed in old clothes, sit under the shade provided by a metal shelter and chat. They are employed by the monastery and a funeral has just taken place.

Plătăreşti is a fine brick church but most interesting for its wall paintings. Especially the painting of St Mercurie which dates from 1649 and is in very good condition. It is nothing at all like an icon and is very much the sort of painting one might expect to see in Italy.  St Mercurie looks like a character from Ariosto. I wonder who he was.


Negoiesti was also a fortified monastery, with thick brick walls, now in disrepair, but now it is a parish church. These churches and monasteries, as with the fortified churches in Transylvania, served a defensive purpose as well as a religious one. The parish priest told us that after three years (he thought that a long time but in fact he was lucky) he had succeeded in getting EU funds to have the church renovated. The church’s interior was restored by the famous 19th century painter Constantin Lecca and the iconostasis (what in England would be called the reredos) is exquisite. He chose a wonderful shade of blue for it. Unfortunately some of Lecca's paintings have been badly damaged by 'an inundation'. Two thousand souls live in the parish of whom perhaps thirty come to Mass, said the priest, though for important holidays each family sends one representative to church.


Romanians are not good at church attendance but attendance figures do not reflect the extent to which people here believe. Belief in the Orthodox religion is the Romanian default setting. It was so under Communism too and under Communism there were more reasons to believe in an anti-materialistic philosophy and fewer things to distract from religious belief.  Here in the Regat is the Byzantine Christian Near and Middle East, an arc that stretched from the Danube to the Holy Land, Mesopotamia and North Africa, before the Muslims came.

Saturday 27 April 2013

Three wonderful churches twenty minutes by car from the centre of Bucharest: Plumbuita, Fundenii Doamnei and Mărcuța

In dreams, unfamiliar buildings turn up in familiar landscapes and I, like many people, quite often dream of churches. Sunday was dreamlike. The sun shone very fiercely in late October and Mihai led me to three astonishingly beautiful old churches whose existence I had never suspected, all inside the city boundaries of Bucharest and inside the ring road.

I always mourned the beautiful old churches destroyed when Bucharest was rebuilt and reinvented as the Paris of the East after independence from in 1877 but there are the very fine ones that still stand, largely unknown even to many Bucuresteni, surrounded by forests of jerry-built Communist blocks of flats. These are churches I would gladly travel three hours to see yet they are fifteen minutes by car on a Sunday from kilometre 0, where I live.


Mass was being sung when we reached Plumbuita, a fortified monastery rebuilt by Matei Basarab to commemorate his victory over the Turks in 1652. Mihai explained to me that the Sublime Porte did not allow the Wallachians to erect fortresses so monasteries with strong walls and towers were built instead; The name Plumbuita derives from the lead roof which covered the church for centuries.

Fundenii Doamnei is somewhat newer and was built in the reign of Constantin Brancoveanu. It too has a serene garden It is in a poor state of repair, which irresponsibly pleased me because I like the patina of age and am startled when a church is as well restored as say the Stavropoleos church is. 
Fundenii Doamnei is second only to Stavropoleos for sheer beauty and is remarkable for some very fine tracery on the outer walls which Mihai explained was influenced by Persia.

Fundenii Doamnei

Fundenii Doamnei

When I first visited Mogosoaia Palace it seemed to me like my idea of a palace in India. After I had been to India I still saw the similarity. Only today did I learn from Mihai that this is not a coincidence. The Mughal architecture in India is of course Persian in origin and so was the architectural fashion in Romania around the year 1700. a time when Romania, as it was not then called, was cut off from Catholic Europe and open to the Muslim world.

Mărcuța, was a monastery founded in 1579, rebuilt in 1679 by one Marcu, who gave the monastery his name, suffered in an earthquake and was restored in the 1820s when the monastery became a mental asylum. The monastery dissolved in 1864 when Alexandru Ion Cuza laicised many monasteries. It is good-looking and has some very fine wall paintings, but most of all I liked the very serene grounds and palpable sense of deep peace.

Biserica Marcuta - Sfintii Arhangheli Mihail si Gavriil

Biserica Marcuta - Sfintii Arhangheli Mihail si Gavriil

Friday 26 April 2013

"We have been most secure when we kept out of Europe"

A.J.P. Taylor, the greatest 
twentieth century English historian of modern Europe, was strongly opposed to England entering the European Economic Community, then known in England as the Common Market, now called the European Union. This is from an article he published in the The Sunday Express on July 11 1971, under the headline, The Path to Ruin:

We have been most secure when we kept out of Europe. Meddling with European affairs has brought us nothing but toil and suffering. The greatest age of British economic achievement was in the nineteenth century. Then we were truly the workshop of the world. The sole principle of our foreign policy was Splendid Isolation. This was the basis for our prosperity.

Of course we do not want to see new wars in Europe. But if we enter into European alliances or European associations we make war more likely. Already German statesmen are saying that the new European Super Power will be able to challenge Soviet Russia. Is this what British people desire?

During the twentieth-century we were twice involved in great European wars. We were told that this was necessary for our security. On each occasion we came out less secure than when we went in. We were told we could not allow one country to dominate the Continent. And what happened? In 1940 one country did dominate the Continent. Yet we survived thanks solely to our own strength. And we should have been far stronger in the summer of 1940 if we had not previously sent an expeditionary force to France and lost all its equipment at Dunkirk.

The Battle of Britain was the most glorious event in our recent history. We won it without European allies. We won it because we had detached ourselves from Europe. It was the victory of Splendid Isolation. Long ago in the days of sailing ships, there was perhaps a case for saying that we could not allow Antwerp to pass into enemy hands. Even in the days of short-range aircraft and rockets there was a case for saying that we were concerned for the independence of Belgium and Northern France. Now nuclear weapons, if they are ever used, will come from thousands of miles away. The security of western Europe has no special significance for us. In weapons, as in other things, the world has become one.
Historians, even the finest, rarely have any insight into the politics of their own time. We see this with Tony Judt, Norman Davies and a hundred others who trot out Guardian-reader platitudes. We see it too with historians on the right, like Andrew Roberts admiring George W. Bush. This is true of AJP Taylor too, with his fear of German unification and his campaigning for unilateral nuclear disarmament. His views on the EEC and all his other journalism are dated (unlike his books which are timeless) but the point he makes here is very interesting. Though the argument he makes would be an argument for the UK leaving NATO too. NATO, not the EEC,  was what kept 'the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down', to quote the words of the first NATO Secretary-General, Lord Ismay. NATO not the EEC kept peace in Europe. I do not take isolationism so far as to wish that we had not been in NATO, though had we stayed out of the war with Hitler it is unlikely, though no-one can possibly know, that the Cold War and NATO would have come into being. 

I loathe Sir Oswald Mosley, the British Fascist leader, who was imprisoned during the Second World War, and think him a bad man and a cynical demagogue, but Mosley was no fool and he was right about one thing. The doctrine of England keeping the balance of power in Europe was a terrible mistake, in the 18th and early 19th centuries and in 1914. Going to war in 1939 was probably also a mistake.  This argument could be used to support the idea that we should have kept out of NATO. War with Soviet Russia after the Soviets acquired the bomb would have been an even greater mistake, of course, but I never believed for one moment during the Cold War that a hot war in Europe was a real possibility. NATO, I believe, prevented war, though it was certainly an application of the balance of power theory.

Keeping out of Europe, even if a federal European state were to come into being across the Channel, was surely the right course. There are many strong arguments for the UK not leaving the EU now and many strong arguments for her doing so but it is hard not to conclude that our joining in the first place was a grave mistake.

More and more, it seems to me that Joseph Chamberlain was far sighted in his hopes for an economic union based on what became the British Dominions: Canada, Australia and New Zealand. How South Africa, Kenya, Rhodesia or India would have fitted in, who knows?

Curious that Chamberlain broke with Gladstone and the Liberals over Home Rule for Ireland, yet Gladstone has very clearly been proven right. Home Rule might very probably have kept Southern Ireland in the UK. Both Chamberlain and Gladstone were political giants, both went through conversions (to Home Rule and Tariff Reform) that made the political weather for a generation and both, it seems to me, were far-sighted, even though there opinions were apparently contradictory. An imperial customs union and Home Rule for Ireland were not incompatible but both would have strengthened the British Empire. Keeping out of war in Europe in 1914 and in 1939 would have done so too.

Sunday 21 April 2013

Weekend in Rome

Saturday began with the Villa Borghese and astonishing sculptures by Bernini. I wonder what feminists think of statues of rape. Actually I wonder what I think of them. The answer is, of course,  that I think they are very beautiful and we cannot blame Bernini for Greek myths. But..

Graham Greene said thrillers were more like real life than real life is and I suppose the classical myths of rapes fall into the same category, if that makes sense. 

Great, intelligent lunch with Hilary and Christopher, two Canadian Catholics who live in Rome. She writes for a pro life news website, he works for Vatican Radio. Both love the Tridentine Mass. I liked Hilary for saying: 
Feminism is evil. 
She suggests I should become a Catholic apologist. Interesting thought. They are badly needed, for sure. But I realise I have a Protestant mind. Should that stop me? Many Catholics these days seem to.

Interestingly, she says Catholic writers are happy to fight again abortion and research on foetuses but shrink from attacking homosexual marriage. This does not surprise me in the least. Protecting life goes with the grain of contemporary culture. Telling people how to live their lives goes against it. Add the anti-discrimination zeitgeist, the sexual liberalism zeitgeist and the Catholic priests who have been guilty of unspeakable sex crimes.

On this issue, both are glad that the scandals have come to light and blame them on homosexuality being permitted in very many seminaries in the 1960s and 1970s.  I am not sure. I have often suspected that the problem was less paedophilia than pederasty, but some have said that things were equally bad in the 1950s. Some of the victims were girls but three-quarters were post-pubescent boys.

Pope Francis seems, they think, to be interested in social justice and not at all in liturgy or doctrine. His reign will be back to the 1970s, which, Christopher added, may be what we need now.

Sunday was a wonderful, sunny day with Mass in the Tridentine Rite at the Church of Santissima Trinita dei Pellegri, a church which Pope Benedict XVI gave over exclusively to the Old Rite. then lunch with highly intelligent, well-informed, nice people who meet up after Mass. It is twenty years since I hung out with Traddies, the nicest people in the world. I shall come back to Rome very often, God willing. The perfect city.

I thought when I was a teenager that everything beautiful would come to an end when the generation ten or fifteen years older than me took over but it was not so. There are groups of conservatives, though I thought when looking around the congregation at Mass that those who believe in tradition feel and seem like Bolshevik conspirators before 1914, in the days when Europe was civilised. Why is loving tradition, whether in religion, politics or social life, considered subversive or even wicked? To answer that question would be to explain much about the state of the Western world. I really don't know. Can you tell me, dear reader?

Go to Rome if you can to see the marvellous Titian exhibition in the Quirinale. One of the best exhibitions I ever saw. 

Note for stingy people:

I recommend the Hotel Paisiello Parioli, Via Paisiello, a place full of character. The price, by Roman standards, was very reasonable (EUR 210 for a single room for three nights).  I had a large room with a bath, not shower, thank God. There is a nice drawing room for guests and the place has character. The hotel is in a great, leafy, quiet area of Rome, very near the lovely Villa Borghese, an area a bit like South Kensington or Bayswater in London, but more central.  However, it is not near a metro, the bus to the centre comes only every twenty minutes and the twenty-five minute walk through the park to the historic centre of Rome, very charming at first, becomes tedious after a couple of times. I therefore, on balance,  prefer my home from home, the Hotel Julia in Via Rasellla, close to the Trevi fountain, which is even cheaper, has three stars and is astonishingly central. A nice hotel though the rooms are rather small and it does not have character. It does a decent breakfast.

Saturday 20 April 2013

Rome in April is heaven, of course

I do not have food cravings but waiting for the plane to Rome I had the greatest urge to eat a good tortilla of the kind you find in a Madrid café. Life is like this.

To be in Rome is to be happy. Rome, the loveliest of all cities - so up top the minute yet so traditional. Conservative without being sinister, unlike Austria. So un-American. If only England could pull off those tricks.

I first came here on my way from Bucharest to Havana via Christmas with my family in England and had 8 sunny hours on 23rd December looking round. I met an American girl who lived here and loved the place. I remember how superior I felt and how I thought Rome, though perhaps the most beautiful place on earth, was the affluent West, a dull place to live compared to Bucharest. I no longer feel like that. Romania has changed and so have I.

Eastern Europe has become deplorably tidy and freshly painted and now Italy feels more East European than Prague or Budapest. I know a Romanian lawyer who, like many Romanians, does tourist sites with the pitiless efficiency of a termite eating through wood. I asked her what she thought of Venice which she had recently visited.

Oh I hated it.


Its so ugly.

Ugly, Andra?

Yes. The paint is peeling and the pavement is not repaired.

I have not yet been to Sicily but I think it might be the new Romania.

I muddled my dates and came when my priest historian friend was away not when he was here but instead I am scheduled to meet several new people, friends of friends. I love meeting new people. New intelligent people is heaven. I am spiritually promiscuous although my life is chaste.

Thursday 18 April 2013

Just Eton boys, grown heavy

I've always loved these lines by Praed, although I did not go to Eton. I wonder if David Cameron, Boris Johnson and the Archbishop of Canterbury do. 

In Parliament I fill my seat,
With many other noodles;
And lay my head in Jermyn Street,
And sip my hock at Boodles.
But often, when the cares of life
Have set my temples aching,
When visions haunt me of a wife,
When duns await my waking ...
I wish that I could run away
From House, and Court, and Levee,
Where bearded men appear today
Just Eton boys, grown heavy;
That I could bask in childhood’s sun,
And dance o’er childhood’s roses,
And find huge wealth in one pound one,
Vast wit in broken noses;
And play Sir Giles at Datchet Lane,
And call the milk-maids Houris;
That I could be a boy again,
A happy boy, at Drury’s.

Mr. Cameron belongs to White's, of course, though I feel Brooks's is his spiritual home because I think he is a Whig.

It is amazing to me who many very good, classic authors, like Praed, are not read by my generation or younger people. He is a wonderful light poet and has the easiness of the wits of either Charleses' days.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Ernest Latham

I was just  unexpectedly invited to meet Ernest Latham the historian, across the road from my flat, in Club A. He was not dancing but talking to the 'Critical Café' on the dance-floor of the club. He was an American diplomat here in the 1980s . His new book. Timeless and Transitory, includes essays on Olivia Manning, Countess Waldeck, Donald Dunham etc. It looks like a box of chocolates that I want to scoff at one go. 

He was a good friend of Patrick Leigh Fermor - (why did I not meet PLF?). 

Fascinating to be taken back to 1980s Bucharest for a couple of hours. Latham knew Silviu Brucan, who was a pathological liar. Professor Latham says was Brucan always said in the 80s that he was an unreconstructed Stalinist. He was a friend of Patrascanu but escaped the purge because he was in North America at the time that Patrascanu was executed.  

I suspect Latham also knew Ion Iliescu rather well in the 1980s, but he avoids this subject gracefully. He says Iliescu could have been third Bratianu had he been able to give up his belief in socialism. I have heard others say something like this, though I cannot see it.

Margaret Thatcher came dressed in the Union flag

I missed the Prime Minister reading the lesson at Lady Thatcher's funeral. At last, after geting bored by the same words from David Dimbleby over and over, I found the right button to click and got the funeral on the BBC. 

At least with funerals, you know there is a good reason for them, unlike weddings.

How beautiful St Paul's is and as unspiritual as a matchbox. 

So strange that someone as young as Mr. Cameron is Prime Minister, 
"an Eton boy grown heavy",
and that so many famous people in the congregation are so very old. Lech Walesa, old, white-haired, fat! Even Francis Maude seems like a very aged Tony Blair, and I well remember Angus Maude, FM's father. Ed Miliband looks out of place. The Queen and the Duke look frail and dogged like OAPs on an outing. Gorbachev was not invited.

Mrs. Blair (Cherie Booth) has the most plebeian mouth. She looks like a chairwoman and makes me believe there must be much in genetics. 

I speak as the son of a carpenter. My mouth is not plebeian and nor were my parents'.

Mr. Blair devised Lady Thatcher's ceremonial funeral, perhaps, who knows, with his own in mind.  I am not sure whether ceremonial funerals for politicians are a good idea and yet for Palmerston, Gladstone and Churchill state funerals do seem appropriate. Perhaps the trouble is that Lady Thatcher was so extremely divisive. But, in any case, funerals are not appropriate places for protests, especially the funeral of a democratic politician who has been retired for almost a quarter of a century and senile for much of that time. A funeral is a time for Christianity, forgiveness, dignity, respect for the dead and the feelings of the deceased's family and friends.

The threats of protests turned out to be like the threats to disrupt Pope Benedict XVI's state visit, mere words. The English are too courteous and respectful, whatever their feelings about Margaret Thatcher or the Pope.

The sermon by the Bishop of London was very good indeed. if only English Catholic priests were nearly, or remotely,  so intelligent. 

He reminded us that Margaret Roberts, as a young chemist, worked on developing the ice cream, Mr. Whippy. if only Messrs Blair, Brown , Clegg or Cameron had done something useful. He also told this story:

"Nine-year-old David wrote to say, 'last night when we were saying prayers, my daddy said everyone has done wrong things except Jesus. I said I don't think you have done bad things because you are the prime minister. Am I right or is my daddy?" Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that the PM replied in her own hand in a very straightforward letter which took the question seriously. "However good we try to be, we can never be as kind, gentle and wise as Jesus. There will be times when we do or say something we wish we hadn't done and we shall be sorry and try not to do it again… If you and I were to paint a picture, it wouldn't be as good as the picture of great artists. So our lives can't be as good as the life of Jesus."
This reminds me of my meeting with Mrs. Thatcher. I was 8 and my father had taken me to the Houses of Parliament. I strayed from him and got lost looking at coins on display on the walls. She found me, took me to my father and showed us various coins that were not on public display and then showed us the members' terrace. She gave us fifteen or twenty minutes of her time, though as Shadow Education Secretary she was a busy woman (famous too - I knew at 8 exactly who she was).

The Nunc dimittis.

"Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word."
The Daily Telegraph describes the funeral

I liked these lines:
For her last appearance on Earth, Margaret Thatcher came dressed in the Union flag.
It was the first time the monarch had attended the funeral of a prime minister since she paid tribute to Sir Winston Churchill in 1965.  
It is said that even with their backs turned, colleagues could tell when Mrs Thatcher had entered a room.

Peter Oborne said Mrs Thatcher was only in the same league as Attlee, who did not get a ceremonial funeral (this is what Lady Thatcher and the Queen Mother received). 

However, Peter got it wrong  - Attlee was primus inter pares, a true Prime Minister, meaning a true committee chairman, like Asquith. It is a mistake to give most of the credit to Attlee for the achievements of his cabinet, several of whom were much bigger figures than he was. 

Mrs. Thatcher was different, a dominant leader like Lloyd  George or Churchill. 

Apparently, a number of people have changed their profile photo on Facebook to that of Clement Attlee, which is an elegant form of protest. Edward Heath's picture would be even more elegant.

I do not particularly mourn Lady Thatcher, or do I? I suppose I do. Comparing her with her four successors, she looks very good indeed. Adam LeBor pointed out on his Facebook wall that had she stayed in office we would have intervened in the former Yugoslavia much much earlier, something I wish had happened (Enoch Powell and Simon Heffer were against intervention). 

In her time, I loathed her and I still think she was in many ways a failure. She presided over mass unemployment and the death of many industries, though now I am unsure if it would have been right to save them.  She did not rescue the cultural, academic and educational worlds from the Left. Now, with an historical perspective, I blame her for signing the Single European Act, for too much cheap credit and for failing to restrict immigration. She was indirectly perhaps to blame for the tragic mistake of devolution. I think she was indirectly to blame for the invasion of the Falkland Islands but think she would have won in 1983 even without a short colonial war. I blame her for the Anglo-Irish Agreement. But she did restore England's self-confidence. This was a great achievement.  And she did not have a prices or incomes policy. This was an immeasurable achievement. She did reverse our long relative economic decline. The changes her government made were, I imagine, responsible for the prosperity in Britain from the mid 1990s, for which her party got no credit. I wish I understood economics well enough to be sure. 

She did curb the state, in the sense that it would have grown ever bigger were it not for her, though she did not reduce it.  She was very divisive, she inspired hatred from many good people. She broke the trade unions and that was necessary, though she would not have done it had it not been for high unemployment. 

Everyone accepts free market economics now, while in 1980 Tony Benn said the victory of socialism was inevitable. Margaret Thatcher is part of the reason for that change, devoutly to be wished for. Those who fought everything she did, like Hugo Young, later turned round and said everything she achieved would have happened anyway. They should not be allowed to get away with this trick.

Monday 15 April 2013

25 reasons why I love living in Romania, in no particular order

Romanians. Clearly the people are the main reason for liking any country, though the countryside and the crumbling inner city of Bucharest come close behind.

Romanians are Latins surrounded by Hungarians and Slavs, marooned in the wrong part of Europe where they endure with surprise each year the bitterly cold winters. Though theirs is a comparatively poor country the people seem happier than in most countries. They are open, friendly, warm, always human, usually emotional. 

Everything about Romanians seems to be paradoxical. Romanians are very human and see everything in human, not in abstract terms, but when they write about ideas they always start from abstract and sometimes cloudy first principles. They are the warmest, the most generous and kindest of people, but can be astonishingly cruel and very malicious. Someone told me when I came here that ‘Romanians have no gratitude and no mercy’ and that is certainly true of very many, though by no means all. They are very mystical yet have their feet on the ground. They are very other-worldly but are often materialistic.

They are very romantic yet brutally unromantic. They try very hard to be cynical. They are very suspicious and live in an atmosphere of fear. Romanians are very much friendlier than the English but much, much more formal. Respect is terribly important – because power is terribly important. This is the Middle East, dreaming that it is France.

Romanians love visiting their countryside – all but a few pretentious ones – love eating Romanian food in restaurants – same caveat – and love hiking and camping, all of which was how it was in England in the 1950s. They tend to be conventional and conformist but my friends are not. You can be eccentric in Romania and bohemian, but it takes more courage than in England, where eccentrics are not tolerated but admired. Non-comformist is a word that often means a woman who takes many lovers.

In Romania under Communism television only broadcast for two hours a day meant until the Revolution the Romanians were spared a huge amount of idiocy and had time instead for reading, conversation, drinking wine, and the national sport, seducing one another. I suppose that was how it was in Victorian England too, except with less wine. Romanians who were twenty or so in 1989 are usually much better read than the English. Those who are not well read nevertheless have a surprisingly large amount of information about their medieval history and take pride in it. Only a minority of people in England, I was shocked to discover recently, know who were Hengist and Horsa, the first Englishmen recorded by history and our Burebistas. Even a highly intelligent history graduate from Cambridge did not. In any case, the English have been taught to think that history is simply the chronicle of oppression. The Romanians who were continuously oppressed by their rulers and foreigners take pride in their kings.

Romania has so far escaped the worldwide cultural revolution – not Mao’s one, but the one that happened in the capitalist world starting in the 1960s and which is showing no signs of abating. One of the great charms of Romania is that the 1960s did not happen in here. The EU will change that, but not quite yet. There was never what in the 1960s was called the generation gap. Adulthood as perpetual adolescence, unlike in Anglo-Saxon countries, is not an idea which has reached here. People become adults when they start work, just like in England until the 1950s. But if feminism and political correctness have not arrived, two even more important legacies of the 1960s in the West, consumerism and celebrity culture, are here and Romania has a tabloid press like everywhere else. It has idiotic television too and rock music though old fashioned 1930s Romanian music is still hugely popular among young and old.

Romania is not at all cool, is utterly uncool, thank God, and yet in its own un-self-conscious way the broken streets and beautiful women of Bucharest are as cool as it gets. And if Bucharest may not be cool it is very glamorous in a tropical, Latin American way. I do not like nightclubs (you must never use that word with Romanians because they think it means something improper) but the fashionable nightclubs have a chic of their own.

Romanians are genteel. A notorious American womaniser said, in the late 1990s, that dating Romanian women was like dating gorgeous 24 year old versions of your mother’s friends. Romanian women and men are still like that.

Romanians expect the worst but always contrive to be shocked that things are even worse than they imagined.
 People tut-tut about scandals and are easily scandalised, even though Bucharest in many ways is Babylon. Is anyone in England ever scandalised anymore?

Romania felt about 1952 here when I arrived. Now it feels about 1964.

Romanians esteem brains and learning – in England it is more admirable to be good at games or was before the Palaeolithic Age, when I lived there.  Here class is about grammar and educational qualifications, rather than about accent or clothes (Romanian rich men dress appallingly, though their wives are learning) or money. They also know that physical good looks are very very important and discuss other people’s appearances with penetration and complete absence of charity. They are more profound than the English, who think it is superficial to talk about other people’s looks.

Romanian taxi drivers. They form the chorus in the Greek drama (it’s a comedy, not a tragedy) of my life here. Like in every country, the people who really know how to run things are too busy driving cabs or cutting hair. Taxi drivers become very dull when they talk about the political class in general (we know they are thieves and bandits) but they have much to say that is very interesting about God, how things were in the old days, love and death. Taxi drivers and barbers know everything. So do illiterates, but that is another story.

The parties. Romanians GIVE GREAT ONES.

The lack of diversity, although things become more pluralistic. Despite the terrible damage that Communism did to this country, which it maimed, there is still a tremendous sense of cohesion and common values. People are assumed to be Orthodox, unless proven otherwise. Catholics are considered odd but are regarded as slightly grand – but Adventists, Baptists and adherents to other sects are not considered true Romanians at all. I like this very much. I only wish this cohesiveness went with a sense of public spirit, but this seems to be absent in all the Orthodox as well as all the post-Communist countries.

I believe the wine is wonderful. So Claudia Pendred says and she is an expert, but I usually drink plonk. I do however love the only grape which is unique to this part of the world, Feteasca Neagra. They do very good roses too.

Bucharest, the European Havana, is still probably the most interesting capital city in many ways in Europe. Living in Bucharest is like living in a film noir full of gangsters, corrupt officials, femmes fatales, old men in hats. The town has so very much energy. It is a twenty-one year old – London and Paris are in their fifties. Most of all the broken run-down streets of Bucharest. Until about seven years ago the slummy Old Town in Bucharest, where I live, which is now a sea of wine-bars and restaurants. But let us enjoy the new rather than regret the past: the old town makes people happy and there are three or four good restaurants there (Sindbad, St George, Lacrimi si Sfinti and Charme since you ask). The new old town annoys me but it has a buzz and is a lot of fun. If only it had not descended from the sky almost overnight, but I rejoice that it came, like many things in Romania, much later than you would have expected. A lot better than the sanitised, well-behaved old towns of other capital cities. It certainly beats Covent Garden. And I have it on my doorstep which is convenient. 

In Romania, everything is difficult but after a while you get used to it or you go mad. Every day is completely different from the one before. These two points are less true than they were five or ten years ago, however.

Romanians believe in God. Also horoscopes, magic, fortune tellers
Most people tend to take the existence of God for granted, like the sun rising each morning and setting each evening. I love Romanian folk religion and the sense that the other world is close to hand. England would have been a somewhat like this before the Reformation. As an English friend of mine, Nick Brind, said to me:

You know you have been in Romania too long when you can tell someone's star sign from their birthday and throw yourself into an animated discussion about it.

I am not there yet.

The jokes. Romanians 
have a wonderful sense of humour, rather similar to the English sense of humour: very ironic, very black. 

The parties. Oh, I said that before.

The second hand booksellers. Second hand booksellers are, of course, the cream of every nation.

The wartime egalitarianism – people who sleep rough sit watching open air film shows without exciting the disdain that their counterparts would do in Western Europe

So-called 'popular music' from before the war (still played very widely) and 'Manele' – a kind of gypsy pop music which everyone claims to hate but which sells very well - and indigenous Romanian pop music. I also like Nightlosers. I love 
Ozana Barabancea, an opera singer turned jazz singer, who sings like Marilyn Monroe would have sung had she been a first class jazz singer. When she was blonde, Ozana even looked a little like Monroe.

The old-fashioned terraces where one can get a bottle of wine and a Bulgarian salad for a song. These are being replaced by pretentious, more expensive places unfortunately.

Not the food particularly, although it is all right. This is the one area where Romania’s neighbours the Bulgarians and the Hungarians beat them. But tocanita with mamaliga is a very fine dish and, even though I do not much love fish, salau tastes very good. Two of the best dishes here are called Russian salad and Bulgarian salad but I am not sure they are truly Romanian. Anyhow, there is a lot of pork. If you like pork very much you may well like Romanian food. The poet Mircea Dinescu's restaurant, Lacrimi si Sfinti, in the old town in Bucharest, has reinvented Romanian cuisine rather excitingly.

The churches and monasteries, especially, but not only, the painted monasteries in the Bucovina and the fortified churches of Transylvania. Bucharest is full of wonderful, obscure churches. No-one seems to have heard of some of the best.

Lack of violent crime, but this is not nearly as true as it was. Crime rates are very low in Romania, except for white collar crimes, where the rates are very high.

The serendipity.

I’ve told everyone to come to Romania but I am very glad that nobody follows my advice. I remember in my first week living in Romania in 1998, an Englishman living here said to me:

You know what’s the best thing about living in Romania?’ 


‘It’s thinking about your friends back in England that are feeling sorry for you.’ 

And that was true then. Now, instead of inspiring horror when you mention the place in England, it inspires indifference. It’s just an East European country that competes in the Eurovision Song Contest. A few people say it sounds fascinating. Most people simply say it sounds obscure. Most Americans probably do not know where it is.

Sunday 14 April 2013

Death lays his icy hand on Prime Ministers

Spencer Perceval being shot by John Bellingham in the lobby of the House of Commons

Margaret Thatcher's death makes me want to sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the deaths of prime ministers.

The Prime Minister whose death I most often think of is that of Lord Rosebery, for some reason. Most Prime Ministers outlive their eras but few by so much as Gladstone's successor as Liberal Prime Minister. Lord Rosebery, as he lay dying in 1929, 34 years after he had briefly been Prime Minister, sent his valet to buy a gramophone and one gramophone record. The servants played the Eton Boating Song, over and over again, in the shuttered bedroom, until the earl, forgotten by the world of flappers and moving pictures, was dead. 

He was only Prime Minister for fifteen months but his life must be judged to have been unusually successful. He once said that he had three aims in life: to win the Derby, to marry an heiress and to become Prime Minister. He married the Rothschild heiress and won the Derby twice during his brief premiership.

I do not know what his last words were and I wonder what were Lady Thatcher's. Queen Victoria wanted to do Disraeli the signal honour of visiting him on his sickbed but he declined with what were said to be his last words:
“Why should I see her? She will want to give a message to Albert.”
He had fawned on the Queen for years, but now saw no reason to continue in articulo mortis.

Another version of his last words is:
“I had rather live but I am not afraid to die”, 
but they sound to me as if written for public consumption. While he lay dying, although he had converted to Anglicanism as a boy, he was heard to murmur a Jewish death prayer.

Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman's last words were 

"This is not the end of me."

George Canning's last words were:

“Spain and Portugal.” 

William Pitt the Younger's were 
“Oh my country! How I leave my country!” 
Or alternatively:
"How I love my country!” 
His nephew, James Stanhope, who was at his deathbed, is the authority for the latter version and is a better authority than Disraeli, who may have originated the widely believed story that Pitt's last words were:

"I think I could eat one of Bellamy's pork pies."
Lord Palmerston's last words are said to have been:
"Die, my dear Doctor? That's the last thing I shall do."
But this, though very well known, is not well sourced.

Lord Derby's last words convey aristocratic disdain:
“Bored to utter extinction.” 
Chamberlain's last words also seem to convey the character of the man:
"Approaching dissolution brings relief."
He was diagnosed with bowel cancer just after he left office. Had he lived in good health he would have run the home front but he would have remained leader of the Conservative Party and therefore shared power with Churchill.

Shortly before his death, Chamberlain wrote an apologia pro vita sua in a letter to Sir John Simon:
...it was the hope of doing something to improve the conditions of life for the poorer people that brought me at past middle life into politics, and it is some satisfaction to me that I was able to carry out some part of my ambition, even though its permanency may be challenged by the destruction of war. For the rest I regret nothing that I have done & I can see nothing undone that I ought to have done. I am therefore content to accept the fate that has so suddenly overtaken me.
What a terrible hand Chamberlain had to play and how should he have played it?

He was a Unitarian and therefore not a Christian, but he, along with Bonar Law and Clement Attlee, neither of whom believed in God, are the only three twentieth century Prime Ministers to have been buried in Westminster Abbey.

Poor Spencer Perceval's last words were to the point:

'Oh, I have been murdered'.
He was a good, able man and would have been a fine Prime Minister had he not been killed. He should win modern day approval for coming from a much more obscure family than Messrs. Cameron, Clegg and Miliband. A book came out last year about the murder. He would probably have held office for as long as, after his assassination, Lord Liverpool did and therefore for longer than Mrs. Thatcher.

Sir Winston Churchill's last words were:
"I’m bored with it all."
On his last birthday, Churchill said to his daughters:
I have achieved much to have achieved nothing at all.
I think this might be the judgement of history. 

Saturday 13 April 2013

Britain's disastrous legacy to her colonies

Britain's most disastrous legacy to her colonies was socialism.

Fabianism begat Nehru, Nyerere and the rest. On the other hand, the former American and French colonies are not doing so well as India, now that India has rid herself of the socialism of Nehru and the appalling Mrs. Gandhi. On the whole, the British legacy was in most cases very positive, but our schools and universities do not teach this.

I almost never listen to the radio, but I enjoyed a discussion on the BBC World Service, which I caught by chance, about the 50th anniversary of Congolese independence. The presenter sounded shocked when a leading Congolese historian told him that 'everything' in the Congo was better under the Belgians. (The Belgians, of course, were notoriously the worst colonial masters, save perhaps for the Germans). All the good things in the Congo, the historian insisted, were introduced by the Belgians. The BBC man said:

But surely you accept that the Belgians were not motivated by concern about the welfare of the Congolese?

The historian said he didn't care whether they were or not. They had greatly benefited the Congo.
Tintin in the Congo, a book of which Herge was later ashamed

The former governor of Jamaica, Sir Howard Cooke, who took part in the pro-independence movement, has a similarly positive view of Britain's role in Jamaican history. The slave trade, he said, saved slaves from 'Africa's black night'. The interview I've linked with Sir Howard is very well worth reading. Again, even though he is from the Spectator rather than the BBC, the British interlocutor sounds taken aback.