Friday, 11 June 2010

Scotland, Buckinghamshire, and Serbia

The stay at Hawthornden went by very quickly, so it felt. When I write I go into a semi-conscious state where I stop noticing how many hours pass, and days chugged along like Thomas the Tank Engine, full of energy and the will to productivity. On the other hand, daily breakfast-lunch-dinner rhythms interrupted the flow, as did trips into Edinburgh to get supplies or see the sights. I spent a lot of time at the Scottish National Gallery, a small but choice collection, with world-class Titians and Poussins, plus an early Velazquez, and a beautiful Van der Goes altarpiece. But I also enjoyed just wandering the city, especially along the Royal Mile, up to Edinburgh Castle for the views over the city or down through Canongate to Holyrood Palace, more beautiful, I think, than Buckingham Palace, if only because of its greater age and historical associations.

During one of the trips into town I met Don Paterson for lunch, we having before only spoken briefly at literary gatherings. He was on his way from Dundee, where he lives, or else from St. Andrews University, where he teaches, to Manchester, scheduled to give a poetry reading there that evening. We spent nearly two hours talking, and very openly, as though we’d been friends for a long time. In particular, about his late friend Michael Donaghy (this blog spoke of Donaghy two years ago); his elegy appears in Don’s most recent book, titled Rain. We also got onto aphorisms, given that Don and I are among the few who currently write them. He hadn’t seen those I published in a little pamphlet I titled The Pith Helmet, so a few days later I sent them on in a digital file. It’s a small club, The Unholy Apothegmists, and we welcome new members.

Writer-residents at Hawthornden got along really well, and the habit of meeting in the drawing room after dinner to talk or else read was quickly established. We gave out parts for Macbeth and read an act per night for five days running, great fun, needless to say. Part of the getting acquainted process involved each of us also presenting our own work, and who would deny that what we write says a whale of a lot about who we are. That must be why we got to be friendly so quickly as we did. Besides, there were excursions: to North Berwick, a little seacoast town where golfers like to stay, very appealing in the parts not trying to cater to tourists. The offshore bird islands added scale and interest to the seascape. I could easily imagine coming to stay for longer than the day we allotted it. Anorther outing we made was to Rosslyn Chapel, quite close to Hawthornden as the crow flies, but reachable only by a series of turns and long winding roads (through pretty country, at least). Rosslyn is currently being restored, so views of the exterior were hampered by scaffolding and even a tin roof (which , however, came off the day after our visit). But the interior is mostly unaffected and well worth the detour. I still don’t know why Dan Brown chose it as the place to conclude his The Da Vinci Code, unless it was the association between the St. Clair (or Sinclair) family who built Rosslyn and Crusades their scions made to the Holy Land. In any case, the beauty and strangeness of the chapel is in no way diminished by the fact of its being co-opted by the world’s biggest best-seller. It is highly ornamented inside, with fascinating sculptures on walls and pillar capitals, some of the representations thoroughly enigmatic. A brochure said there were no fewer than one hundred representations of the quasi-pagan Green Man, and at different stages of his life, concluding with a death’s-head version carved on the exterior of the church—a none too reassuring detail, you might feel.

Eventually came the day when our seven residents scattered to our separate existences. Two of us postponed “real life” by going on further journeys, Beena Kamlani off to see friends in Strasbourg and I on my way to Serbia. But I stopped along the way, spending a night in London with Mimi again and then a night in Buckinghamshire at James Byrne’s mother’s house. James and Sandeep had returned to London from New York, so this was a chance for a little reunion. After a cup of tea, he and I took a walk through the woods, this part of Bucks. known as the Chilterns, though still some distance from the Chiltern Valley. We rejoined his mother, whose name is Mary, and his stepfather David Shuttle, at an old country pub called "The Hit or Miss," where a cool drink was just the thing on this broiling afternoon in late May. An enthusiastic game was underway in a cricket pitch across the road, and part of the fun was to keep an eye on the white-clad figures as they hit, missed, or dodged about in the heat. A walk back to the house, a nap, a good dinner, and a good night’s sleep concluded the visit, a brief idyll before further travel rigors.

Because I had my flight to Belgrade next day: It went smoothly, though there was some haggling with cabbies at Nikola Tesla airport in order to avoid paying three times the normal rate for the drive into town. But soon enough I was at an apartment block on Cara Dushana Street in the Old City of Belgrade, greeted in the courtyard by my friend Dragan Radovancevic, almost certainly Serbia’s best young poet. It was actually James Byrne who effected an introduction between us, as James has made several trips to Serbia, to read his poems and receive a prize for them. But Dragan and I had only exchanged letters, never met face to face, so there was an initial awkwardness to get past. We soon did. Dragan speaks good English, but we would also occasionally lapse into German, which he learned while he was in Vienna and Berlin on various fellowships. And I began to learn a few words of Serbian, overlapping as it occasionally does with Polish or Russian. I also met his brother Pedja, with whom he shares his apartment. Pedja is in the theatre, not as an actor, but as musician/composer and stage designer. The company he works with sometimes tours other countries, so he has done a good bit of travel and also speaks English very well.

We spent a fascinating week, strolling around the old city and stopping to look at the main sights. Probably the handsomest street is Knessa Mikhailova, now a pedestrain mall, with the expected fashionable shops and some nice examples of Sezession or Jugendstil or Art Deco architecture. Elsewhere Dragan made sure I saw the one mosque that has survived in Serbia, a 16th-century structure with one minaret. Belgrade has a very small surviving Muslim community and a slightly larger Jewish community. I wouldn’t say the atmosphere of the capital, the product partly of the national temper in general, is fully reassuring. While I agree that Nato’s bombs weren’t the right solution for the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, it was disturbing to see graffiti that put NATO before an equal sign that was followed by the Star of David. Of course there are always random fanatics ready to deface walls with any sort of nonsense, but graffiti can also be removed or painted over, and I wish it had been done. Of course the intellectual and artistic minority in any country I’ve ever visited always stands opposed to militarism, racism, religious bigotry, anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia. It’s the others that are frightening. Especially where sexuality is concerned. Although there are no laws in Serbia against consensual same-sex relations between adults, the prevailing attitudes are rampantly anti-gay. Gay-bashing is common, and it seems the police turn a blind eye to it. So I never felt fully relaxed during my stay. Discussions with people there revealed that the current government is more than a little intransigent in its nationalism—partly out of wounded pride, I’m certain. Still if its petition to join the European Union is to be accepted, the reigning ideology will have to change, and safety and respect be guaranteed for Serbia’s minorities. That won’t be easy to accomplish. There is even a linguistic or rather a typographical issue to deal with. The Serbian language can be written either in the Cyrillic alphabet or else the Roman. The Cyrillic alphabet is associated with ancient tradition, Orthodox religion, and an insistent nationalism. Progressives in Serbia prefer the Roman alphabet. I can piece out words written in Cyrillic, but it did strike me that if Belgrade wanted to become more tourist-friendly they should spell the street signs in the Roman alphabet. But I doubt this will be done.

And there are good reasons for tourists to come and spend the money that the Serbian economy desperately needs. For me, the most beautiful part of Belgrade is the old Kalemegdan Fortress, built on an ancient Celtic foundation, the bulk of it constructed during Ottoman rule. It is the highest part of the city, with views onto the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, a grand prospect indeed. Huge and sprawling, the fortifications incorporate several levels, with brick and stone walls, ornamented portals, grassy stretches, trees, a couple of museums, the ice-cream stands idiomatic for public parks, and the tomb of a former Turkish governor. Also, a pair of churches, one of them dedicated to the military. Dragan and I sat in this one for a while, as a fly buzzed in and out of the one ray of light that penetrated the prevailing gloom. I thought of all the widows and mothers of soldiers blown to bits who must during the past half century come to weep and pray there. The one thing the world never seems to tire of is war. Meanwhile, I’m so tired of it I could pull my hair out by the roots, no matter that the gesture wouldn’t do any good. Eliot said we must be grateful for the spectacle of human ignorance and folly, as our only inkling into the nature of infinity. Right.

Dragan (pictured at the left with me) would admit that he still bears psychological scars dating from the years when his country was at war. Let’s acknowledge that the sound of bombs exploding doesn’t do much to make a child feel safe and happy. Nor did Dragan live in Belgrade at that time, but in a small town an hour away less affected by the bombing. He and I stayed a night with his parents in that small town, Sremska Mitrovica, which is about an hour from Belgrade. Meri and Draska Radovancevic are charming people and generous hosts. A huge feast was put on the dining table of their apartment in a modern group of buildings on the outskirts of town. Poor Dragan had to do all the interpreting, though Meri would occasionally volunteer an English word or Draska, a German. And I would timidly put forth a Serbian phrase in turn, such as “dobra hrana,” i.e., “good food.” We got along wonderfully well, language barrier or no.

Next day Dragan drove us toward Novi Sad, Serbia’s second city, with a stop in the Frushka Hills to see Hopovo Monastery, an impressive architectural ensemble in a lovely rustic setting, painted the color I call Maria Teresa yellow, so common is it in the countries of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Dragan has special regard for the place not only because of its intrinsic beauty but also because it sheltered (for a while) a 19th-century monk named Dositej Obradovic, who became disillusioned with Orthodoxy and wrote about that disillusionment in a well-argued book. Te main attraction is the church, which has austerely attractive frescoes in Byzantine style, a central dome, and the standard Orthodox brass candelabrum suspended overhead.

We spent only about three hours in Novi Sad, but saw the main sights, including the large, domed synagogue and the central pedestrian mall, named Jovan Jovanovic Zmaj, which, like Belgrade, has many eye-catching 19th century buildings. Dragan pointed out “Newlywed Square,” where it seems just-marrieds often get their picture taken under an ornamented wooden gate, free-standing like a Japanese tori. He said that he had given a poetry reading there a year or so ago, as part of the Novi Sad literary festival. The heat being what it was we stopped for a frappĂ© at an outdoor cafĂ© next to the Roman Catholic cathedral, glad of the shade and the chance to let aching feet recover.

It was time to retrace our steps, so we set out again for Sremska Mitrovica, once more stopping at the monastery in the Frushka Hills, this one called Khrushedol. The monastic ensemble and its sturdy gatehouse outside were painted a lively Roman red, with both grounds and buildings very well kept up. Feeling a little guilty at how much touring (and driving) Dragan was having to do, I was relieved to hear he’d never visited this particular monastery before. When we inspected the church, similar to the Hopodov’s, he was interested to discover that the tomb of King Milan was there, Milan being the first monarch to encourage the adoption of Western modernity in Serbia. Another tomb nearby had apparently been donated by Catherine the Great of Russia, but he wasn’t able to decipher who the deceased person thus honored was. When he thanked the nun who attended us there, she answered (rather dauntingly) “No: Thank God.”

During my last days in Belgrade I met several friends of Dragan’s, all of them friendly and intelligent, several of them writers eager to discuss topics relating to literature and culture at large. I could see that New York was a magical name to them. Of course I felt the unfairness of our comparative situations. Yes, I’ve worked hard and made sacrifices to live the life that I live. But there is no reason that Serbia’s gifted writers and artists shouldn’t figure on the international scene. No reason except for history, that strange combination of accident and human will, the latter too, too often shortsighted if not downright malevolent. Dragan has had the luck to win fellowships to live and work outside his country. But something more than that is needed, and, myself, I don’t know how that desirable something is to be attained. Here (as so often elsewhere), we take our petitions to Time and wait for them to be granted.

My thanks to Dragan, to Pedja, and to Meri and Draska.

No comments:

Post a Comment