Monday, September 28, 2009

My Universities: Socialist Gigolo

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

My Father Was a Wandering Aramean

Inkspot's mother-in-law is a Bessarabian Warshawski, not to be confused with the frightful Ludlow Warshawskis.

"Bessarabia" set me thinking about names that linger after the places that once claimed them have moved on. For those of you who weren't condemned by a rash choice of university course to study the meanderings of East European borders, Bessarabia was a province of Wallachia and the Empires both Ottoman and Russian that played a walk-on role in Greater Romania before vanishing back into the Soviet wings in 1940.

It lurched onto the international stage as an independent country in 1991 only to topple over the footlights into the orchestra pit, where most of it remains today. One county - Bolgrad - is still touring with Ukraine, and another has struck out on a solo career as the proudly rogue state of Transdniestria, of which more later.

Still never heard of it? That's not surprising, as the Bessarabians decided to ditch their good old name and opt to call themselves "Moldova" instead.

I can understand why "Bessarabia" no longer appealed:

  • The history associated with the name was grisly;

  • It reminded the locals of their erstwhile Jewish neighbours and their annoying dance craze; and

  • Anywhere called "Arabia" is suspect these days, whatever fancy adjective you put in front of it.

    • But there are problems with "Moldova" too. Not only is it already the name of the adjacent province in Romania, but Bessarabia/Moldova was part of that very same province in 1918-1940. Doesn't strike me as a sign of self-confidence or imagination if you borrow the name of the next parish along. Nor has the fancy new name brought the Moldovans much luck.

      What it has done, however, is give the Romanian province of Moldova the chance to reclaim the far superior monicker of "Moldavia". This is what the Soviets called Bessarabia/Moldova from 1940 to 1991, when the name came up for grabs again. "Moldavia" sounds like a real country, as it has the tell-tale "ia" ending that marks out exotic lands ruled by princelings with caddish uniforms.

      It also sounds like "Moravia", a real place that you might actually want to visit, and this gives the low Romanians a chance to lure yet more tourists to their twilit land of roadkill cuisine.

      ">Transdniestria", a dangling bacon rind of Russian arms dumps, war criminals and lumpy women in knitted berets, lacks the audacity to call itself "The Soviet Union", as it dearly would love to, and missed the chance to claim "Bessarabia".

      Instead it has chosen a name that emphasises where it is not, not what it is. "So who are you lot then?" sighs the weary UN admissions mandarin. "Can't say, but I'll tell you where we're not - we're not in the River Dniester. We're beyond it!"

      "Jolly good," says Sir Tarquin, steering the Representative from Tiraspol towards the Sub-Carpathian Ruthenians, Cisalpinians and Sahrawis of the West, all playing with glitter and spittle at the special-needs table.

      "Jordan" dropped the "Trans" as soon as it became a kingdom, and Transylania only won the endorsement of demented Nipponese squirrels when it rebranded itself Sylvania. Wise moves from countries going places, while Transdniestria can't even persuade anyone to spell it right:

      You will find "Transnistria", "Trans-Dniester", "Dniester Republic", "Pridnestrovie" or - my favourite – "Unităţile Administrativ-Teritoriale din Stînga Nistrului". The gang of onion-breathed spivs who run the place prefer Pridnestrovie or Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republicto be posh. These people are not doing themselves any favours.

      Africa, the continent that gave us the Nigerian bank scam, shows these blunt-fingered Slavs how it should be done. Newly-independent colonies were eager to shake off the dreadful titles various moody explorers had given them. Rhodesia was named after an ill-favoured invert, the Gold Coast practically screamed "Come and despoil us, please!", and you somehow feel that the malarial Haut Commissaire who came up with "The French Territory of Afars and Issas" wasn't putting his heart into it.

      So the plucky young kleptocrats gave notice of their relaxed, marimba-influenced attitude to the property of others by appropriating the names of more edifying countries located some distance away in either space or time. Most daring of all was Comrade Nkrumah of the Gold Coast.

      The historical Ghana Empire was much further north than his new state, but so generous was Nkrumah's pan-African spirit that he even managed to become president of an entirely different country - Guinea - once he'd spent all of Ghana's gelt.

      A prime example of a country that got it wrong was Persia. A cloddish Cossack colonel ousted the agreeably sybaritic Qajar dynasty in the 1920s and decided that racialism was the next big thing, so he renamed that perfumed land "Iran", as in "Aryan". Reza Shah seemed not to know or care that the neighbouring country was already called "Iraq", thereby sowing confusion among sub-editors at the BBC house magazine Ariel for some time to come.

      Iraq itself, of course, once gloried in the title "Mesopotamia", but that didn’t really work in Arabic and Wise King Feisal wasn’t an Oxford man. Saddam Hussein, George Galloway, the godly but unlettered President Bush and thousands of bearded maniacs have ensured that the name "Iraq" is now almost exclusively associated with beastly behaviour, so I suggest that Mr Talabani and his chums in Baghdad should simply relaunch the country as "Persia".

      Bingo! They persuade Notting Hill types to buy their carpets and annoy the haughty Tehranis with one stroke of the legislative scimitar.

      In the same over-amplified soundbox of ancient grievances, those silver-tongued charmers in Israel just can't stop their neighbours wishing violent death upon them. I propose that they should drop not only the name but all geographical denominators and simply appropriate the title "Nelson Mandela".

      Let's face it, the old boy won't be needing it for much longer, and Friday Prayers won't go down so well with Tristram and Jocasta Trustafarian when they echo to the Federation of Conservative Students' chant of "Death to Nelson Mandela!" C'mon Mr Netanyahu, it's not as if you've got any bright ideas of your own, is it?

      And it doesn't stop there. No one takes Poland seriously.Polnische Wirtschaft,"Dude, Where's Your Country?", worst alphabet in Europe, noblemen with no underpants, pickled cabbage, charging down Panzers on horseback, madder-than-average women - it's not a good image. So why not take the long-vacant name of "Prussia"?

      After all, Poland at the time of writing (1051 gmt, 16 September 2009) is located on much of historic Prussia. And say what you like about that Millwall of the German Empire, no one found it in the slightest bit amusing when the Junkers came a-calling.

      Last and as usual least comes our own beloved Wales. "Wales? is dat the big fish or dem singing bastards?", as a New York cabbie once asked Sir Geraint Evans en route to the Met. I tell you now that we are going nowhere fast if we continue to call ourselves "Nancy Latinate foreigners" in Old High German and risk being confused with Moby Dick - by which I mean the marine leviathan, not the Cornish porn star.

      We could insist that everyone calls us “Cymru”, but that would put us back on the blunt-scissors table with Myanmar and places with names that just don't work in other languages. We could go all Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and resurrect "Cambria" and "Gwalia",but my preference is for a stunning bit of thievery.

      Just as that gobshite Bono reclaimed Helter Skelter from Charles Manson, when it had belonged to The Beatles all along, I propose that we rename Wales "Britain". The United Kingdom doesn't use the title much since Lady Thatcher was gently steered off to the Whisky Transfusion Clinic, and the English seem to have dropped it in favour of the original Beserker "Ingerland".

      For one thing, it'll be difficult for Unionist Tories and Kinnockites to refuse to be "Backing Britain", and since when did anyone "Brit" on a bet? Lovely.

      Thursday, September 03, 2009

      My Heart is in the Marshlands

      The quadrant-hatted Polack knows not where his borders lie
      He bows down to the Virgin but the truth he can't descry
      His dung-breathed Lettish neighbours lead him on a merry dance
      While every passing Teuton deftly kicks him in the pants.

      This disgraceful quatrain from the Edwardian hymn "God Is in His English Heaven" was penned as a rhyming tool in the sacred and profane education of Marcher youth, but still imparts some poignant truths about the history, culture and couture of the Poles.

      It struck me that news coverage of the anniversary of the outbreak of war in 1939 has concentrated on the doings of Germany and Russia, rather than those of Poland - much as did the Second World War itself. This comes as no surprise to Poles, who are used but not reconciled to their roaming homeland being turned into a trampoline, vomitorium and crematorium by noxious neighbours.

      I have given some account of my dealings with that splendid nation before, but the anniversary of the war brings to mind the events of 1989 in the swamp full of bison piss that the Poles call their border counties (Kresy) and the people who live there call Lithuania and bits of Belarus and/or Ukraine.

      "Lithuania, my Fatherland!" ("Litwo! Ojczyzno moja!") is the stirring phrase that both launches the Polish national epic, Pan Tadeusz, and neatly sums up the problem Lithuanians have with it. They could always counter by writing an epos called Uncle Andrius that begins "Warszaw is my parking space", but I suspect that it would lose them the moral high ground.

      Poland has generally prefered the geographical high ground, and sent General Żeligowski to remind the Lithuanians of this in 1920. Most military revanchistes would seize an outlying province or two, but Żeligowski showed the true élan of a Polish Uhlan by capturing the capital, Vilnius, and leaving the Liths with the consolation prize of the rest of the country.

      Interwar Lithuania was unlucky enough to be governed by a pair of feuding college professors called Voldemaras and Smetona, whose verbal felicity proved no match for the sabre-gnashing cavalry of Poland's Marshal Piłsudski - a man who escaped German captivity in the Great War by feigning insanity with the greatest of ease.

      The Marszałek decided to bury his own heart in Vilnius (his more cautious aides persuaded him to leave it until after his death), and he assumed that Lithuania would find this grande geste unanswerable.

      Perhaps they did. History records, however, that the bluff plebian Stalin did not. After overrunning the Kresy in 1939 he gave Lithuania back its capital, only to seize the entire country a few months later in an extreme example of loan-sharking as applied to international diplomacy.

      Lithuanian history was on hold for 50 years of Soviet misrule until I turned up in Vilnius in a borrowed Chaika limousine as interpreter for a Vassar-educated dominatrix with a mercantile interest in local ballerinas.

      The lady in question earned her living as an impressario, and decided to scour the western bulge of the Soviet Empire in the hope of signing up the talented, underexposed and seriously hot ballet troupes for tours of the filthy West.

      This was a good idea in principle, undermined by the local satraps' inability to understand the concept of an exclusive contract or what I was saying. My Russian wasn't bad on the whole, but a combination of cheap beverages and undiscerning company left me fading in and out of coherence, audibility and consciousness for most of the time.

      Miss Vassar had tired of negotiations with the turtle-faced bureaucrats of Belarus, and told me to arrange travel forthwith to Soviet Lithuania, its well-regarded national ballet theatre and affordable leather goods.

      I decided not to mention that Lithuania had declared independence a few weeks back, and that President Gorbachev had responded by imposing a blockade of the republic. This didn't worry the Lithuanians much, as their only imports from Russia were more Russians.

      Their slogan at the time was "Beat the blockada with the lambada!", a marginally more practical approach than the Voldemaras/Smetona tactic of intimidating the Soviet Army with quotations from Virgil, but it wasn't likely to help us cross the border. I could imagine how louche and un-Socialist our reasons for entering Lithuania and, with luck, a few Lithuanians might sound to an austere KGB border guard with more bullets than witnesses.

      I decided to go by the book and called the Minsk KGB. "Good morning, KGB," said the young lady in an encouraging display of glasnost. "Hello, No Good Boyo," I replied, before setting out our plans. The young lady said there would be no problem as long as our documents were in order. I hung up in the sure and certain knowledge that several months on a tuberculosis refresher course awaited any attempt to cross the border by normal means, and so had a word with a resourceful local friend.

      He was that most elusive of creatures, a cunning Belarussian. He hired us a Chaika limo and liveried driver. "Sit in the back of this baby and it's a brave border guard who stands in your way," he grinned, fondling the fins of the regional Communist Party's favourite ride. And he was right. Our driver maintained the correct speed of measured authority as we trundled past emaciated conscripts in the dank forests of Aschemynne.

      His pace faltered through the speckled hills of Vilnius, however, and we realised that he'd never been to the city and had no idea where the ballet theatre might be. "Drive into the centre, my good man, and leave the rest to me," I drawled.

      In the hope of a few dollars more I'd bought a Lithuanian dictionary and memorised a few key phrases - "Good day!", "A beer? Why, thank you!", "And your sister is where, exactly?", "I wish to report this female American spy, Comrade Colonel", and "Excuse me, where is the ballet theatre?"

      I cast a basilisk eye over the tracksuited trolls on the swollen sidewalks until the ideal couple glided into view. A pair of distinguished pensioners, his silver hair capped with a beret and hers with a pillbox hat, their stately gait spoke of hardback books, antique pianos and a non-predatory interest in the performing arts.

      We pulled over, and I tried out The Phrase. "Aciprašau," I bowed, "kur yra baleto teatras?"

      The gentleman blinked slowly, turned to his wife and asked "What did he say?"

      In Polish.

      These heirs of General Żeligowski had lived in Vilnius all their lives, from Tsar to Stalin and beyond, and to them the Lithuanians and their Sanskrit-for-Hayseeds language was no more than a passing irritant, like decimal coinage and Labour governments to my parents.

      Being a Welsh I am used to people living in our midst without mastering more than a few curses in our native tongue, and so I switched to Polish and asked again where the ballet theatre might be. They gave me detailed instructions, which I repeated to the driver.

      We drew up outside a sturdy Art Deco edifice near the city centre. Perhaps ballet was considered a lewd spectacle among the Papist Liths, but I was still surprised to see no sign of tutus, firebirds or six-foot homosexuals in eyeliner. We sent the driver in to light out the territory.

      "It's the registry office," he reported five minutes later. "Births, marriages, deaths, tractor adoptions - that sort of thing. The ballet theatre was here in the 1930s, but it was moved to a new building decades ago."

      Decades ago - the last time my Polish guides had gone to the ballet. A time when the dancers still pranced purely in Polish.

      You have to admire this dedication to self-delusion, without which no beleaguered people can hope to survive. The Polish national anthem includes the line "Bonaparte has shown us the way to victory". Indeed, we all have much to learn from his fate.