Wednesday 30 July 2014

A yachting holiday in Croatia - but first we had to get there by car from Bucharest

I travel a lot. I hate having my life disrupted by routine.

I just came back from a truly wonderful yachting holiday in Croatia and shall try to write it up though, as Tolstoy said, happiness writes white.

I had no time on the yacht to blog nor any desire to. It was a completely unintellectual holiday and that was its charm.

Here goes. We met in front of Europe's biggest building, the House of the People, in Bucharest at the very Communist hour of 4.45 a.m. and drove through bewitching countryside to the border with Serbia. Thank God Romania does not yet have motorways and every long distance car journey through eighteenth century countryside is enchanting. 

We stopped at Orsova, a river port which felt wonderfully clean and utterly remote from anywhere. I love places like that to eat breakfast in but no doubt for living in they can get on your nerves. Stopped in Orsova, I had my first cappuccino for many years made from the 'plic', that is, powder from a packet. How easily one forgets - this was once part of everyone's life in Romania.

I finally saw the Iron Gates the canyon through which the Danube flows between Serbia and Romania. Yes we took a speed boat tour for ninety minutes and yes it was huge fun. We wandered around a very beautiful cave where the Austrian army sheltered from the Turks for eight months. 

If you think Communist art is kitsch, Iron Guard art might have been even worse had they come to power. The Iron Guard were Romania's equivalent of the fascists, but in some ways a mystical and religious movement too. The statue carved in the rock is of King Decebal - but not drawn from life. It was paid for by Guardist multimillionaire Iosif Constantin Drăgan in 1991. 

Iosif Constantin Drăgan was treasurer of the Guard and when Carol II dissolved it Drăgan is said to have fled with a million dollars to Mussolini's Italy, where he founded Butan Gas. He came back to Romania in 1990 and was until his death the richest man in Romania. He lived very quietly and was known principally for his extensive collection of extreme-right memorabilia and his marrying a lady almost sixty years his junior. She is now the richest woman in Romania.
Danubian castle near Iron Gates. Looks like a theme for Thomas Campbell or some romantic poet.

Then the drive along the Danube to Serbia and the river ran alongside us like an endless lake. Many fine things were on our way including the tower of a medieval castle. The rest of the castle had been submerged by the water when Tito and Ceausescu built the Iron Gates hydroelectric dam. The tower was just as monuments ought to be - found by chance amid longish grass, though to my dismay I saw a board announcing that a government body was in the process of reviving tourism in the area. A Hungarian man, who was not of my opinion, shouted loudly that it was a disgrace that the tower was left in this state, which would not happen in Hungary. When I pointed out reasonably enough that I liked it the way it was he started to shout that Transylvania would be Hungarian again one day. Even if this were true it was not a winning debating gambit with a crowd of Romanians who jeered him good humouredly. They can afford to be good humoured as they own Transylvania and don't expect to lose it.

Friday night was wonderful Serbian food (grilled meats, of course, but so very well grilled) and slivovitz, with torrential rain in Skadarlija,
.that Montmartre-like street which is Belgrade's only sight. The gods hurled thunder at us as we feasted. I recommend the restaurant, the Dva Jelena, which was doing business before Austria Hungary invaded Serbia a hundred years ago.

I like Belgrade because there is so little there to like. Madalina said

I wonder which way to the city centre.
And I replied
This is the city centre. That's the parliament there.
But in two years according to a billboard the riverside, at present a truly dreary area, will become a sort of little Dubai with Middle Eastern money. It seems very slightly odd that Serbs, who fought so hard against the Muslims in Bosnia, are now becoming an economic satellite of the Gulf states.

Saturday, after dull hours on the motorway, was a heavenly ride in an open-top car through the literally idyllic Bosnian countryside. Bosnia is the most beautiful part of the former Yugoslavia and this was the most simply beautiful part of the entire holiday. Alas we had no time for Sarajevo, the most interesting Balkan capital.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

24 hours in Slovenia

The railway journey from Zagreb to Split was very beautiful - winding through the beautiful Sava valley. It was much better than yesterday`s from Split to Zagreb. I avoided Slovenia for decades fearing it would be Alpine and Austrian but what is wrong with those things, really? It is full of castles, churches and mountains and seems to have been invented by the Brothers Grimm in a spare moment. You feel as if a great weight has been lifted from your shoulders when you are in a small country which your mother and sister have not heard of, but then you remember you are still in the EU.

I have never experienced deja vu but Ljubljana does remind me of something and I think it is Laurel and Hardy in Babes in Toyland. Slovenia also reminds me of Bandrika.

Anyway, it's a wonderful treat visiting a new European country. I have no more new ones left except Denmark and Norway, which I do not intend to visit because they are clean, tidy, affluent, Protestant, Teutonic and socially liberal, whereas I am a socially conservative anarchist. Denmark and Norway sound as boring as get out, although Stockholm I did visit, because Sweden was once a great power and, as an imperialist, all former empires attract me. 

San Marino and Andorra do not count as European countries. Malta and Cyprus are islands and therefore not in Europe. And islands off the coasts of Africa and Asia respectively, come to that. But perhaps Mr. Putin will create some new European countries for me to visit.

I like Slovenia, despite myself. I accept by now that almost every city has been done up and gentrified and acts as plant for the tourist industry. I am not repelled by the new paint as I was when I visited Tallinn and Riga years ago; I came back rejoicing that it had not yet happened to Bucharest. 

Alain de Botton's insight about his native Switzerland comes to mind in relation to Slovenia - yes it is boring but boring is another word for peaceful. And it is only boring on the surface. Its Alpine charm hides the usual post-Communist mess. 

A crocodile of middle aged people marched past my hotel protesting in support of a former Prime Minister imprisoned for corruption. 

'Why do they do that?''Because they are stupid. They do this every day'.
It looks like Austria but it is much more exciting and the people much more human. It also has burek.

Thursday 17 July 2014

Estonians, Etonians and women in the cabinet

This is a good and much needed article by Jamie Delingpole on why Conservatives should avoid identity politics. Instead of which they are embracing them in a big way in the recent British cabinet reshuffle.

This drew a smile: 

"There are currently 256 male Conservative MPs and 48 female ones. If you're going to draw from the smaller talent pool just because it contains lots of breasts and vaginas and handbags why stop there? Paedophiles, for example. They're not nearly as well-represented as they were, apparently, in the glory days of 1970s politics."

No, promoting women become they are women is certainly not conservative but, on the other hand, conservatives - well, Tories, at least -  are not supposed to believe in meritocracy. Harold Macmillan, at any rate, certainly did not - he made the Duke of Devonshire Under-Secretary of State at the Colonial Office because 
'Cavendishes are always good with natives' 
and said
'Mr Attlee had 3 Etonians in his cabinet. I have six. Everything's twice as good under the Conservatives.'
He chose Lord Home to succeed him because he was an earl and complained, very wickedly, that Mrs Thatcher 
'has more Estonians than Etonians in her cabinet'. 
Behind a lot of Macmillan's jokes, especially the snobbish ones, one detects the bore who emptied the House when he was a backbencher and the sensitive middle-class intellectual who went to Eton, married well and hid his ambition and nerves with ham acting and a bottle of whisky a night. 

But no-one ever denied that he was a clever man and I like what he said when Mrs. Thatcher invited the Queen and all the living Prime Ministers to No. 10 to mark the 300th anniversary of the building of the house. As the photograph was being taken that appeared on all the front pages the next day, James Callaghan said,
I wonder what is the collective noun of Prime Ministers.
And Macmillan, who was 91, answered instantly,
A lack of principals.

Wednesday 16 July 2014

The bombing of Gaza

Many people seem outraged that some Arabs would like Israel not to exist, but there are understandable reasons why they do, though I do not agree with them. On the other hand, Israel within the 1948 boundaries has been around long enough to have acquired legitimacy. In fact she acquired it when in 1948 the Arab countries expelled their Jews. Passage of time is the only thing that ever confers or removes legitimacy but you will never get people to agree on how much time it takes. And legitimacy does not decide things, force does. Have I said enough to make people on both sides of this question stop reading my blog? 

I shall add that I do wish the Israelis would be generous with Abbas and stop building on the West Bank and I wish Hamas would stop fighting.

The last time there was fighting in Gaza I wrote this:

Less than five years after the (Byzantine) Roman Empire had won back Palestine from the Iranianson 4 February 634, Muslim Arabs defeated the Byzantine army, commanded by the candidatus, Sergius, at the Battle of Dathin, a village near Gaza. Sergius himself was killed. The Muslim victory was celebrated by the local Jews. 

This is the moment when Islam enters history. 

The fascinating Doctrina Jacobi nuper baptizatia Christian polemic against the Jews and one of the very few historical sources, records voices from an otherwise eerily silent period of Middle Eastern history:

When the candidatus was killed by the Saracens, I was at Caesarea and I set off by boat to Sykamina. People were saying "the candidatus has been killed," and we Jews were overjoyed. And they were saying that the prophet had appeared, coming with the Saracens, and that he was proclaiming the advent of the anointed one, the Christ who was to come. I, having arrived at Sykamina, stopped by a certain old man well-versed in scriptures, and I said to him: "What can you tell me about the prophet who has appeared with the Saracens?" He replied, groaning deeply: "He is false, for the prophets do not come armed with a sword. Truly they are works of anarchy being committed today and I fear that the first Christ to come, whom the Christians worship, was the one sent by God and we instead are preparing to receive the Antichrist. Indeed, Isaiah said that the Jews would retain a perverted and hardened heart until all the earth should be devastated. But you go, master Abraham, and find out about the prophet who has appeared." So I, Abraham, inquired and heard from those who had met him that there was no truth to be found in the so-called prophet, only the shedding of men's blood. He says also that he has the keys of paradise, which is incredible.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Thankfully Bucharest still does not get very many visitors

I am delighted that Bucharest is near the bottom of cities (90th out of 132) ranked in order of number of foreign visitors, according to the recent MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index.

The Romanian capital is expected to receive at 928,028
in 2014 , and they are expected to spend US$391 million. I have no idea how they know since we are only in June but they seem very exact. I wish there were fewer but there we are.

The passing of William Hague

William Hague is one of the most brilliant people in politics. When he led his party he swept the floor with Tony Blair at question time every week, though the electorate didn't care.  But when have we had a more disastrous Foreign Secretary? 

Herbert Morrison and Selwyn Lloyd were only undistinguished - Lord Halifax was much better -  Robin Cook was no good but he must be remembered with respect because he resigned over Iraq. Sir Edward Grey who took us to war in 1914? 

Mr. Hague should have been sent to the backbenches for what he did in Libya and wanted to do in Syria. But Mr Cameron was equally responsible and should have joined him.

If only Alan Watkins were still alive. Michael White, whom I always love, sums up Mr. Hague and the rest of the victims of the reshuffle here. I like this comment:
... I was in the Empress ballroom in Blackpool – everyone's favourite conference hall – when he precociously entered politics at 16 by lecturing Mrs T on how to govern when she won the coming election.

Personally, I still think he never recovered from that debut – as Judy Garland once told the Queen Mother about 'Somewhere over the Rainbow':
"Ma'am, that song ruined my life."

Constanța is being tarted up

I went to
 the seaside at the weekend by train as far as Constanța and came back the same way. This is much more civilised than car, especially with the new rolling stock they introduced last week. My return journey took a mere two hours unlike the three hours it used to take before the seven years it took them to rebuild the railway. 

A friend of mine who studied geology before becoming a successful businessman and who knows how they rebuilt the track said they hurried it for political reasons (they had originally promised that it would only take on year). He told me not to travel on that line in rainy weather. I pass on the warning.

The old port at Constanța is now full of restaurants. Who knew? There used to be just one terrible fish restaurant that Romanians always recommended.

This is an example of Covent Gardenisation that I guardedly approve, on the whole, though I always liked Constanța's loucheness. It was always a wicked place - one half expected to meet Sydney Greenstreet and Humphrey Bogart in its broken streets - but the wickedness will remain even when they finish renovating Piata Ovidiu.

How exotic the mosque is, overlooking the port. How odd it is to think that England is now full of them. Romania's 20,000 Muslims, in the Dobrugea, which was part of Turkey until 1878, made me think Constanța Near Eastern when I first went there in 1999. Mine is the last generation of Englishmen that could forget that we have millions of Muslim fellow-countrymen - and we forgot it in the 1990s but not anymore

My taxi driver says that Mr Mazare, the 'controversial' mayor of Constanța, has done many good things and reels off a long list. Who guessed? One of the good things was to get EU funds to pay for the renovation of the old port.

A Constanțan waitress I once pursued was telling me about the smuggling mafias in the city and I naively asked her if Mr. Mazare knew about all the smuggling that went on. She said, with an innocent face,

'He has no idea.'

Monday 14 July 2014

Back to Vama Veche

To my own surprise I decided to go to Vama Veche at the weekend and, not only that, I held to my decision.

I had a great time.

Vama Veche is where unconventional, open-minded people in a rather conventional, rather narrow-minded country go to let their hair down. In the 1980s it was simply a piece of empty beach between the last village in Romania, Doi Mai, and the Bulgarian border. it attracted nudists. Nudism was a way of asserting ones individuality in an oppressive totalitarian society.

It still is a place to escape convention and normalcy - if you want that go to Mamaia, which represents the polar opposite of what Vama is. When I got to Vama in 2000, though, my Romanian friends were complaining that there was no longer any point in going there because it was full of wooden buildings and had a concrete motel. But in those days 'the spirit of Vama' still existed.

I asked Beni who is one of the most famous Vama characters whether the spirit of Vama still survived. He said the spirit of Vama is what you make of it and this is true of course. For many Vama means beer, rock music, the famous bars on and near the beach - the most famous of all being Ştuf - even, it is rumoured, sex. It is also where a lot of young and youngish people, half of them students, some of them in their 50s and 60s, go to drink a very great deal. Much too much perhaps.

It is, I am pleased to say, not a place for people with children. Nor is it a place for television presenters, politicians or the rich. It is a place for camping or living in a caravan or slumming it in ricketty gerry-built digs. It is at once egalitarian and intellectual.

There is not much that is truly Romanian except the villages and the monasteries but Vama Veche is absolutely Romanian. It is the, in a strange way, the heart of Romania, libidinous and drunken though that heart can sometimes be at four o'clock in the morning.

Friday 11 July 2014


I remember coming across the word threnody and deciding it would find its way  into my Latin A Level paper. This is how A Grades are earnt. If only life were as easy as A Levels.

Was Oscar Wilde a child abuser?

I cannot quite understand why some people think of Oscar Wilde as a martyr. 

Certainly, what consenting adults do in bed should not be a crime. It's very difficult to understand why it ever was, though sodomy was a hanging offence in England until 1861 and decriminalising it between men in 1967 was unpopular with the general public. 

Lord Byron and his friends, homosexual or bisexual themselves, would visit convicted sodomites who awaited execution and jeer at them, according to something quoted in Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-Century England by Louis Crompton Faber. I hope this is not true. This story made me suspect that there is a connection between homosexuality and sadism. Other evidence suggests that Byron visited the prisoners from compassion.

By the way, Muslims who formed a political party in England to make sodomy once more a capital offence were arrested by the police last year, which does not seem quite right in a democracy. They were simply proposing a change in the law. 

Oscar Wilde was a wonderful and very lovable man and one should not be self-righteous, especially about sexual sins, but nor should he be, nor would he have wanted to be, admired for his tragic flaw, which led him to be unfaithful to his wife and to sleep with young prostitutes. They became rent boys because of poverty and, as I imagine happens to all prostitutes except at the expensive end, had their young lives gravely damaged. 

Wilde became a Catholic on his deathbed, in articulo mortis.

One of Wilde's rent-boys was 16 and a homosexual act with a boy under 18 was a crime until 1998 in England. On the other hand, after homosexuality was legalised in England in 1967 I don't think men were prosecuted because of 16 year-olds. 

But there were references at Wilde's trial to a boy who looked 14. 

The age of the boys was irrelevant in 1895 and we don't know if the boy was under 16. The chambermaid at the Savoy told Lord Queensberry's solicitors that she had seen a boy asleep in Wilde's bed aged, as far as she could tell, about fourteen, but later, in court, she said she thought the boy could have been older, could have been sixteen, eighteen or even nineteen. Who knows where the truth lies?

Had he or another prostitute been under sixteen, in our day Wilde would have been tried and convicted. The whole scandal would have been comparable to the conviction of Rolf Harris and would have been as big a scandal now as in 1895.

British society, which is obsessed by paedophilia, still has very odd double standards. If you are a famous, long dead playwright sodomising minors is alright.

Wilde's punishment (hard labour) was terribly sad, but he brought the prosecution on himself by perjuring himself, when he sued the Marquess of Queensberry for defamation after Queensberry called Wilde a 'somdomite' (sic). 

Wilde was given bail and Arthur Balfour and others gave him the opportunity to flee the country, but Wilde chose to serve his sentence. 

I feel very sorry for Wilde, who really was in that overused phrase a tragic figure, but since this, cruel and unjust as it was, was the law, there is no real reason why a man who was well connected should get off while working class men were punished. To think otherwise is outrageous.

In his biography Ellmann says this well-known picture is of Oscar Wilde in drag as Salome. It is not in fact Wilde but a mannish looking Hungarian actress who looked a lot like him.

Paedophilia is a word I dislike as it was invented by the child abusers themselves, but we are now stuck with it. Was Oscar Wilde a paedophile? No. Interference with young teenagers is not paedophilia, which means interfering with pre-pubescent children, and should not be confused with it, but is equally damaging. 

Abuse is more than a matter of the age of the victim though - the age and sex of the adult is also relevant. I do not think a girl of nineteen sleeping with a boy of fifteen child abuse. I have known two beautiful women of thirty who slept with underage boys - that was not abuse either. When middle aged men sleep with thirteen year-olds or fourteen year-olds it is abuse, even if they are rock stars and the girls are willing.

I know an Englishwoman who grew up in an orphanage. She told me that all the boys in the orphanage were buggered by social workers, but none of the girls were touched. She added that she was herself pretty and therefore knew whereof she spoke. 

Some argue that it seems child molesters are disproportionately male homosexuals - for example among Catholic priests. I can only say that I have known several women who were interfered with as young teenagers, with tragic consequences - one who was raped by her father and brother. She poignantly told me that she forgave her brother because boys can't help what they do when they read magazines, but could not forgive her father.

I remember the Comte de Tilly, in his wonderful memoirs, said that to start ones life by being raped was a very poor school for virtue, by which he meant chastity or sexual restraint. It is much worse than that, of course, and child abuse is a crime which affects the victims' children and their children and grandchildren.

Tuesday 8 July 2014

What would Lord Curzon have said? A stick-in-the-mud reads the English newspapers

The Guardian is beyond parody, is its own parody. Here George Monbiot worries that extending life expectancy will favour the rich and not the poor. 
'Longevity science may divide us into treated and untreated.' 
It would make a dog laugh. Scientists are making strides to keep us all alive much longer and Mr. Monbiot thinks it might be unfair. 

Already, on this planet of finite resources, rich and poor are locked into unacknowledged conflict, as hyperconsumption reduces the planet's capacity to sustain life. Grain is used to produce meat rather than feed people directly; the safe operating space for humanity is narrowed by greenhouse gases, industrial pollutants, freshwater depletion and soil erosion. It's hard, after a while, to see how this could produce any outcome other than a direct competition for the means of life, which some must win and others must lose. Perhaps the rich must die so that the poor can live.

This continual worry about 'fairness', which dominated thought in the West thirty years ago, when I was at university, is a very powerful and morbid intellectual  paradigm and has given birth to a thousand bad things. We have to be conscious of it and argue against it. It is the not so distant cousin of egalitarianism, puritanism and socialism. It is one of the various things that has taken the place of the sacred in Western people's lives.

Then Messrs Hague and Osborne want a statue of the overhyped Gandhi in Parliament Square to go with Nelson Mandela. (Mandela was for years a Communist and was  always on the extreme left but at least Mandela was not England's enemy, if only because white South Africa had been given its independence from Britain before his time). By agitating for independence from Britain, which would have happened at some point in any case, Gandhi must take some of the blame for the bloodshed at partition, when up to a million people were killed in intercommunal violence. That puts the Amritsar massacre, which made Gandhi lose trust in Britain, into perspective. Like Ireland, India was only ever united under British rule and when the British left both countries partition was inevitable .

I prefer to think of Lord Curzon's attractive statue in Carlton House Terrace, which I know well. What would he think of Gandhi and Mandela outranking him? I imagine Curzon would say it was 'ghastly', said with his characteristic short Midlands 'a' sound. He considered the long 'a' middle class. (Gladstone, by the way, also used a short 'a' - we know this because of his famous assertion, 
All the world over I back the masses against the classes.
He clearly said 'classes' to rhyme with 'masses'.)

George Washington, a traitor who fought an unnecessary and unjust war against his king, is in Trafalgar Square, for some reason. I try to avert my eyes from him and instead look affectionately at the statue next to his, of King James II. New York is named after James II but New Yorkers do not seem to care about him. Cromwell, shamefully, stands in front of the Houses of Parliament across the road from Parliament Square, erected at Lord Rosebery's personal expense. The statue pleased the Nonconformists and made the Irish Catholics, rightly, furious.

Finally, yet another story of high-minded people being persecuted for refusing to provide their catering services for homosexual marriages. In this case, some brave bakers refused to make a cake saying, 
Support gay marriage. 
This is about free speech, about an Englishman's (in this case a Northern Irishman's) right to write what he likes (or not write what he does not like) on his cake. Freedom of speech, however, is not given much protection in the UK. It is another illustration, if one were needed, of the truth of A.J. Balfour's observation,
Society is constantly persecuting.
It is too late to say that the UK is, by law, a Christian country, and, anyway, it is not true: this incident took place in Northern Ireland, whereas it is only England and Scotland that have established churches and are therefore officially Christian. The Churches of Ireland and Wales were disestablished a long time ago. Still, until very recently, say the 1980s, Christianity was the basis of British public culture. Now, as far as the question of homosexuality is concerned, it is actually almost illegal to uphold what was until the late 1970s unquestioned Christian teaching in all the churches. This is a remarkable development that has been little remarked.

Friday 4 July 2014

After Rosia Montana Gold Corporation, Tony Blair is now advising El-Sisi of Egypt

After advising Rosia Montana Gold Corporation, the company promoting the hugely controversial projected open-cast gold mine project in Transylvania, Tony Blair is now advising General El-Sisi of Egypt, who has executed 2,500 opponents.

Actually, on balance, much as I am a great environmentalist and hate the thought of the changes it will necessitate to the landscape, I think I support the gold mine in Rosia Montana. Certainly I get very cross with some bad arguments used against it, for example by people who bang on about the cyanide. Cyanide is used everywhere in the world in open-cast gold mining. I also think General El-Sisi needs advice badly. But the impression one gets is that Tony Blair is doing these things to add to his fine collection of old English banknotes and this is not what England expects from her former Prime Ministers. 

James Callaghan, like Cincinnatus, retired to his farm, Harold Macmillan to Highgrove and Macmillan & Co, Lord Home became the Foreign Secretary who took Britain into the E.E.C., Edward Heath sulked on the back benches and in Salisbury cathedral close but none of them used their former position to make money, except from book royalties (royalties in Edward Heath's case for a book he never wrote).

At least Mr. Blair has not accepted a seat on the board of Gazprom.

An earlier leader of the Labour Party, the pacifist George Lansbury, departed from the job in floods of tears at the 1935 party conference, after Ernest Bevin famously accused him of 
"hawking his conscience around from body to body."
The suspicion must be that Tony Blair is hawking not his conscience but his advisory services from body to body and some pretty odd bodies. Or was he approached by General El-Sisi and Rosia Montana Gold Corporation?

Actually, much more than the unworldly Lansbury, Mr. Blair reminds me of Disraeli in his twenties, on a trip to Albania where he stayed with Ali Pasha, expressing his
"delight in being made much of by a man who is daily decapitating half the country".

I never get tired of Romania, despite the shopping centres

Princess Eleonore of Schaumburg-Lippe, who is a delightful ornament to Bucharest life, has written a lovely story about the frustrations Westerners feel living in Romania. 

She is the best kind of foreigner, the kind that goes across country by bus, is as happy eating in a cheap dive as in a fancy place and mixes with everyone. She even wrote very charmingly about how she tried to integrate in Romania here

The worst kind of foreigner works in a big international company, mixes only with other foreigners, except for his colleagues and girlfriends, and lives in a gated compound. Another objectionable kind is the kind that has gone native in a bad way and mixes with Romanians all the time but the ones who have a lot of money and very murky business methods. 

Eleonore says all expats feel frustrated and have to leave to recharge, but I, who am here for 15 years, don't, despite the satanic malls which have sprouted all over the place like a horrible contagion. In fact I find going back to Western Europe rather depressing. An Englishman who has been in the construction business in Romania since the mid-1990s, whom I had not thitherto suspected of being a poet, told me

I don't know how it is with you, Paul, but whenever I go to England I go by TAROM to continue the Romanian experience for another three hours but, as I walk down the steps of the plane at Heathrow, I become depressed and I don't feel happy again till I walk up the steps to get on the plane back.
Back in those days, ten years ago, I completely agreed with him.  Romania changed and modernised enormously since then, though, while now, when I go home, after half a generation away, I feel like a Martian.

I remember Marc Cannizzo, here since 1993, when asked what he liked about Romania replied,
I agreed with that. Another foreigner said he liked everything about Romania except the accounting system.  I agreed with that too. The grotesque accounting system, by the way, is not a Communist relic or a product of Romanian labyrinthine ingenuity, as you might think, but something copied from France after the revolution. After the Romanian revolution, not the French one. 

Every day every foreigner here is asked by several Romanians whether he likes it here, answers yes, very much, and is told he is crazy. And then, after two seconds, always, 
'Ah, yes, of course, the girls.'
Unless, that is, as in Eleonore's case, the foreigner is a woman.

This, you immediately understand as soon as you arrive, is a country with an incredibly low self-esteem. And this is why you get a certain amount of arrogant nationalism, because arrogance is a by-product of low self-esteem. I admit, though, that my theory does not explain why Hungarians really do consider themselves superior to their all their neighbours. 

Actually, you notice far less prickly national sensitivity here than in other Eastern European countries and when you do you are quite often talking to someone with personal problems about himself and his own life.

I do not say that age cannot wither nor custom stale Romania's infinite variety, because Romania isn't especially various, as countries go, - and certainly much less so than pluralistic, multicultural England. And passing years and the economic growth they bring are certainly withering many of the things I most like about Romania. I hate the shopping centres and cling to the alimentar, the local grocery shop, where in defiance of economics things are actually cheaper than at the supermarket. I don't like the way Bucharest markets, where everyone shopped when I came here in the 1990s, have dwindled, as people shun them for the hypermarkets. In any case, when, for some reason (so that some people could make money, I imagine) they were covered over the life went out of them, from my always aesthetic point of view. I miss the wonderful ecological fruit and vegetables that are being replaced by flavourless, brightly coloured imports, as the countryside dies. I don't like the clever boys in sports cars who think it cool to jump the lights and I certainly don't warm to the politicians. No, I do not warm to them at all. Still, I do love so much about this country, though now with the kind of love one feels for a wife rather than a girlfriend. It's a different love altogether, of course, from the love one feels for ones motherland.

I used to think that in Romania you either got to like constant problems or you went mad. But now I find there are not so many problems. Partly this is because life is much easier these days than it used to be and perhaps because I have now come ashore on the broad complacent shoals of middle age. For many many years I found it a constant delight being in Romania, but now I am used to it, it seems normal and, alas, the country has become much more normal. A bit boring in fact - for what is normal but another word for boring? - but then something happens to remind you of how special this place is.

In no other country in the world do people have such distrust and lack of respect for their countrymen, but I love Romanians, starting with the people who suffered under communism, the intellectuals, the people who try to preserve the good things about the past, the people who go on pilgrimages and love their country's medieval history (but that last item encompasses almost everyone here who can read and write, thanks to Communist history teaching). 

I am not undiscriminating. In fact, I love to discriminate. For example, I much prefer the people who holiday in Vama Veche or Doi Mai to those who like Mamaia. I like the people who hike in the mountains or go to the delta or to look at monasteries best of all. I was told when I first came here in 1998 that all nice Romanians are monarchists and I have found it to be true, with a very few exceptions. 

Romania's great quality is how human she is - which is another way of saying how old fashioned she is, because modernity is, of course, an essentially dehumanising process. What is human can never be boring or predictable.

People find in other people the things they are able to find, the things they have in themselves. They recreate other people in their own image. The same applies to countries too. When one goes abroad, whether to travel or to live, one is looking for a country in which one finds oneself, that reflects ones soul.

I am very lucky in having found in Romania almost exactly what I want.

Ilfov living standards are 105% of EU average

I just came from a meeting with Irish diplomat David Costello, who told me that the standard of living of Ilfov, the county that surrounds Bucharest, is an astonishing 105% of the E.U. average.

Foreign investors, he says, should not pay attention to the average wage statistics in Romania because they take into account the many millions of extremely poor people, the peasants who are impoverished subsistence farmers. David might have added that in any case in the countryside a real cash economy scarcely exists, neighbours barter things and few declare their incomes to the taxman.

David is busy setting up the Romanian-Irish Business Association which will open with a party in September. No doubt that will be good craich.

Tuesday 1 July 2014

A new caliphate arises in the east

Finally, thirteen years after terrorists attacked the USA to restore the Caliphate, someone announces that he is Caliph. It all reads like a sequel to Greenmantle. I imagine thriller writers are busy trying to emulate non-fiction.

Can anyone declare himself Caliph? 

Is there a job description?

The Janissaries used to choose them, or rather used to choose the Ottoman Sultans. Many of these were half-Albanian as Albanian wives were esteemed for their beauty and I think an Albanian Caliph might be nice. Albania could do with a boost and an Albanian one would probably drink wine. And Albania hopes to join the EU. On the other hand, if being female and Christian were no bar, Queen Elizabeth II is said to be a descendant of Mahomet, by way of King Peter the Cruel of Portugal, though this is not certain.

Actually, what is happening in Syria and Iraq is another act in the tragedy. Nothing is funny about it or rather the humour is black. It drips with Gibbonian irony.

This very informative link says that the Ottoman Sultan's claim to be caliph was very slight and the Sultan only claimed to be Caliph as late as 1880.  I've read quite a lot of books about Ottoman history without realising this. The Mahdi and other Muslim leaders, despite their providential claims, bit the dust and few take seriously Mullah Omar's claim to be caliph, wherever he is.

This latest pretender seems like a true psychopath, who kills household pets for fun. As I write this it occurs to me to wonder what the press, had it existed in their day, would have made of the 'four righteous caliphs' who spread Mahometanism across the Middle East and North Africa after Mahomet's death. They were certainly Islamists and fanatics, without a doubt. They created the Muslim world. That is if we believe the traditional account. A few revisionist scholars have suggested that the empire came first and the religion later.