Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Balkans: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

Rebecca West, writing just before the Second World War, on her travels in the Balkans. I have done my own little bit of that travel, which is why this book took my interest. This edition, too, is introduced by Christopher Hitchens, but despite that I still think West is dodgy politically, and possibly intellectually too. However, this is the best travelogue I have ever read, by quite a long way. Studded with gems, such as this on the divide between peasants and bourgeois (which still meant something in the 1930s) "there is no man in the world, not even Stalin, who would claim to be able to correct in our own time the insane dispensation which pays the food-producer worst of all workers". She's right about the last bit, but - Stalin, the peasant's friend? In 1937?
On the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which then existed in living memory: "Such a terrible complexity has been left by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which some desire to restore; such a complexity, in which nobody can be right and nobody can be wrong, and the future cannot be fortunate". Look forward to the 1990s and that is true, but I do not think I blame the Austro-Hungarian Empire for the Yugoslav wars of that time.
A little politically incorrect by the standards of the left of today, I am glad to see: "the people of Dalmatia gave the bread out of their mouths to save us of Western Europe from Islam; and it is ironical that so successfully did they protect us that those among us who would be broad-minded ... would blithely tell us that perhaps the Dalmatians need not have gone to that trouble, that an Islamized West could not have been worse than what we are today."
Things not a lot of people know: Robert Adam was inspired by the Roman Emperor Diocletian's palace at Split: "When we look at a facade in Portman Square or a doorway in Portland Place, we are looking at Roman Dalmatia."
She talks to a Dalmatian professor in Split who had been a friend of Admiral Lord Fisher, about whom I learned, as often in my young days, from an Al Stewart song: "Admiral Lord Fisher is writing to Churchill, calling for more dreadnoughts; the houses in Hackney are all falling down."
She's a bit odd on sexuality; perhaps because she was a renowned feminist she felt the need to keep putting things in about it. But they are strange (to our ears now) sweeping statements, such as "But of course in a country where there is very little homosexuality it is easy for girls to grow up into womanhood."
On the culture and religions of the Balkans the book goes from marvel to marvel. In Kotor, where suddenly there are Orthodox churches, in contrast with most of Catholic Croatia, she notes "the dark, hugged mystery of the Eastern Church and the bold explanation proffered by the lit altars of the Western Church".
She is totally pro-Slav and pro-Serb, and sees Gavrilo Princip as a kind of hero. Those killers could not be sentenced to death, because they were all under twenty-one. But 13 conspirators were sent to Austrian prisons, and by the end of the war, three years later, nine of them had died in their cells. The three young men who were convicted of the killing are buried in Sarajevo. Are their graves still there? Are they still marked? West and her husband went to see them. I wish I had.
She is impressed, as most are, by the relentless, almost hilarious good looks of the people. "... one of those pale women with dark hair who even in daylight look as if one were seeing them by moonlight".
Elsie Inglis's Scottish Women's Hospital was in Serbia in 1914-15. Who knew?And what courage those women had. I'm glad she mentioned it.
Boy is this a long book. Knocks Patrick Leigh Fermor into a cocked hat though, and that's not something I thought I would say. "If Protestantism has done much harm by making religion identical with ethical effort of a limited kind it has done a great deal of good by putting down in black and white the ideas of Christianity, and showing us what life will lose if we abandon them."
Social history in the small mentions. She travels with a work-basket with silks in it. Did they have huge trunks and an army of bearers? Perhaps they did.
She describes the blood sacrifice of lambs and cockerels on a particular rock in Macedonia on St. George's Day, for women's fertility, in fairly nauseating detail. She is utterly disgusted by it, and says, rather oddly, that she has been living in the shadow of that rock all her life.
Byzantine titles are just wonderful. Sebastocrator and Grand Logothete, Grand Domestic and Sacellary.
The old Serbian poem about the battle of Kosovo Polye in 1389 (that battle was treated as a recent memory when I first went to Kosovo in 2001) tells West that "what the pacifist really wants is to be defeated". Not to avoid war, not to prevent bloodshed, but to be defeated. "Kill us, we deserve it."
And then "We said goodnight and stood in the porch under the Dorothy Perkins roses." How does she even know a Dorothy Perkins rose to look at? And why are they called that? And what do they  have to do with the shop?
This is a wonderful book. There is much more in it than I have been able to describe. The lives of the bloody and not so bloody Serbian kings, especially; the Austrians and Germans who treat the Balkans as their colony (she is not very pro-German), the architecture, peasant and bourgeois life, the Jewish and Greek minorities, and much much more..