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.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Romania still loves the European Union, for materialistic reasons

Euro coin map of Europe

An interesting article today in several European newspapers written by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a think tank, says euroscepticism is on the rise everywhere. No surprise there. 

Someone said that Northern Europe believes in the EU because they trust their governments and Southern Europe believes in the EU because they don't. Neither Northern Europe nor the Mediterranean countries trust the EU any more,  but Romania still does, seeing Europe as a source of money and an escape from self-rule. A survey by GfK showed Romanians as the third most optimistic country in Europe regarding economic recovery, a very long way behind Germany and Austria. The Romanian unemployment rate at 6.7% is one of the lowest rates in Europe. Living standards are a lot higher than they were in the 1990s.

The Spanish liberal Ortega y Gasset's remark,

"Spain is the problem and Europe is the solution"

no longer reflects what Spain thinks these days but replace 'Spain' with 'Romania' and it is what most intelligent Romanians under fifty think. By the way, I think Ortega was completely wrong about Spain, but Spain before the Civil War had an old, beautiful, very conservative, un-European tradition. Romania, on the other hand, is a new invention that has gone wrong.

Intellectuals in 19th century Romania genuinely and passionately believed in the ideals which France represented but Romanians these days do not  see the European Union in idealistic terms – for example as a means of keeping peace in Europe or of greater prosperity through greater trade. Europe is popular because it is means money and protection from the Romanian political class – in other words, a providential deus ex machina, the inheritance from an uncle that saves the day in a nineteenth century novel.

But this will change slowly and, in sharp contrast with their Russian contemporaries, who are very right-wing about sex and race and most other things, I foresee in Romania a generation of liberal or left of centre academics and political activists who will look to the EU as a source of politically correct ideals. Non-discrimination, equality of opportunity, feminism and secularism will be the arguments for changing socially conservative Romania. 

The EU is more powerful than any other institution in Romania and it has a lot of money. Academics are rarely able to resist the appeal of power, which is why many European intellectuals liked the USSR during the Cold War. And academics, who derive most of their salaries from taxes, are naturally disposed to sympathise with the public authorities, that feed them, and to dislike the businessmen who make more money than they do. The Marxists among them understand that economics determines culture. Economics in a high tax society determines justifications for high taxes and an active state.

The EU no longer represents prosperity to the countries of Mediterranean  Europe – quite the contrary – but it represents a great deal of prosperity to former Communist countries like Romania. Romanians do not fear another  European war or give much thought to the last one, but they are still living with its consequence, Soviet Russian imposed socialism.

Romania is not in the position of Cyprus, Greece or the other PIGS or PIIIGS. Austerity, as practised by Romanian governments since the crisis began was not ordered by the EU. Romanians who think austerity was a mistake, and there are many of them, blame the IMF or the Romanian governments. But I think sovereignty is less about tax and spending decisions  than decisions about caning in schools and smoking in bars - they and so many other decisions are now taken by the EU. Even Switzerland, which is not in the EU, may have to reverse its law banning minarets on instructions from the European Court of Human Rights. International law is truly the enemy of democracy.

I have never been in favour of capital punishment, but why shouldn't Romanians reintroduce it, if they so decide?

But that is to raise another question: why are so many things removed from discussion these days? In the word of the 1980s light bulb joke:
How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?  
That's not funny.
A lot more things than just feminism are no longer either funny or discussable and the list keeps growing longer. But what people in Romania care about is not the right to drive their horse and cart along the highway or slaughter their pig where they like. They ignore laws that tell them they cannot do these things. What they care about is economic development and foreign investment. They still hope the EU will help them get these things.

Europeans once cared passionately about national self-determination and personal freedom but the welfare state and prosperity seem to be what people talk about now. At least it is what most politicians mostly talk about and have done since 1945. Perhaps it is the legacy of Communism which played its part in reshaping post-war Europe. In a sense, welfare considerations have replaced politics and religion. In any case, I do not expect the East Europeans to fight within the EU for fewer regulations and less political correctness.

What has changed is that the idea of convergence has been postponed till after the crisis is over. But when a problem has no solution it ceases to be a problem and becomes a fact. Will the crisis end or has it become a fact, simply reality and will convergence be postponed till the Greek calends? If so, how will that reshape Romanian politics, the economy and attitudes to the EU?

Mogoşoaia palace

Mogoşoaia palace, near Bucharest, was built by the great voivode and later martyr Constantin Brâncoveanu between 1698 and 1702, when the Dutch usurper, William III was on the thrones of England and Scotland. 

It always looked to me like an Indian palace and I found that there is a reason for this. Indian Mughal architecture is really Persian and Constantin Brancoveanu's buildings were very influenced by Persian styles. The Stavropoleos church, in the old town in Bucharest, is another good example. So is the church of Fundenii Doamnei, also nowadays in Bucharest.

The Romanian Orthodox Church a few years back canonised Stephen the Great (though my friend Emil Perhinschi, says Stefan cel Mare should be translated as Stephen the Old) despite the saint having been said to have had an illegitimate child in every town to which he laid siege. (I mentioned this to an extremely devout lady I know in Suceava country, who regularly takes food to hermits and attends Mass daily, and she said 'Well, he was a man.') Stephen the Great also impaled his enemies through their anal sphincters, just like Vlad the impaler and other mediaeval monarchs. I do think that Constantin Brâncoveanu, who was martyred, along with his family, because he refused to convert to Islam, would be a better candidate for canonisation. When his teenage son wavered about conversion to Islam,  Constantin Brâncoveanu encouraged him to be true to the faith.

On the subject of martyrdom, and without disrespect to these very brave heroes, I really fail to see why a forced conversion under pain of death matters.  This discussion, according to Gibbon, has been going on sotto voce since the reign of Nero.

Mogoşoaia was renovated by Princess Teresa Bibescu in the 1920s and the plaster removed to show the beautiful brickwork, a beauty purchased at the expense of anachronism, although, unlike with mediaeval and Tudor beam buildings in England, where I think the beams should not be exposed, I feel exposing the brickwork at Mogoşoaia was a good idea. Mind you, the attractive red of the bricks is one of the things that makes the palace remind me of one in India. 

British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith's daughter, Elizabeth Asquith, who married Prince Antoine Bibescu, lived here for some years. 

In the 1990s Mogoşoaia, then twenty minutes at most by car from the centre of Bucharest,  felt utterly rustic, but now the lake is fringed with the hideous villas of prosperous customs officers and police colonels.

My friend Sarah, or rather Silvia Colfescu on Sarah's blog, has written very interestingly about Mogoşoaia here. Rather than repeat or steal her information, I recommend you read her piece. There has been enough plagiarism in Romania recently.

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.

Lacul si Manastirea Cernica


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.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Jesus was not a vegetarian

An argument against vegetarianism, from a Christian point of view, just occurred to me, which I never heard before. Our Lord was a fisherman. He on at least one occasion, according to the gospels, ate fish. 

Had he eschewed meat I think we would have heard and had he commanded His disciples not to do so I am sure we would have heard. Instead He forbad divorce and swearing oaths.

Perhaps eating meat falls into the same category as slavery, which He also did not condemn. Despite the fact that slavery is taken for granted in both the Old and New Testaments, Christians seem sure it is an absolute evil. At any rate giving up meat and fish is a supererogatory act of mercy. Though I doubt if fish suffer in any case when killed and animals suffered much less in the First Century than in the West today.

As for slavery and capital punishment and many other things the Bible does not condemn but seems to approve, I leave that for the priests to argue over, though I have questions about drawing modern conclusions from ancient texts. 

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Catholic Church holds it better for the Sun and Moon to drop from Heaven...

The media shockingly misquoted Pope Benedict XVI and suggested he had said that homosexual acts were a worse threat than global warming. Damian Thompson said that the media liedPope Benedict XVI had said absolutely nothing of the sort, or anything close to it, but had he done so he would surely have been right. Right, that is, if one accepts the Catholic teaching that these acts are sins. 

In the words of Cardinal Newman:
...the Catholic Church holds it better for the Sun and Moon to drop from Heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony … than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.

This is an hard saying; who can hear it? 

I can understand non-believers finding this idea repulsive and vile. It seemed rather repulsive to me at first reading and did to Newman's Anglican readers. It was intended to. It is probably an example of logic-chopping and sophistry. I cannot think of a situation in which by committing a sin one could save the population of the earth from dying of starvation or even save one person from pain or death. But I cannot fault Newman's logic. It is certainly the case that for Christians sin is a greater problem than global warming or poverty or anything else.

Anyone who doubts that is not fit to be a clergymen. Yet the Archbishop of York complained that the Lambeth Conference used time to debate homosexuality, which would have been better devoted to debating poverty. Whatever your opinion about homosexuality, this attitude is really repulsive. It is indicative too of how welfare considerations (along with the ideal of equality) are taking the place in European culture of holiness and of how to lead a good life.

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.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Man is the reason for the universe, if God is not

I respect atheists, if they are polite and they do not rejoice that there is no God, but I do not respect the idea that the earth is an unimportant planet.

The universe exists because man perceives it. That is common sense. Unless of course you believe in God. Even then man is the reason for the universe. 

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.

Safe abortions

The BBC World Service was talking this morning about the need in India for 'safe abortions'. 

A curious expression. They are not safe for the unborn babies.

Margaret Thatcher came dressed in the Union flag

I missed the Prime Minister reading the lesson at Lady Thatcher's fineral. 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. 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

Image may contain: outdoor

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.