Farewell to Salonica by Leon Sciaky

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Without wanting to sound too “bags and baggage”-ish about it, the end of Ottoman rule in the Balkans is generally regarded in the West as being a very positive thing. The Balkan Wars which immediately preceded the outbreak of the First World War aren’t regarded in the same semi-romantic light as is the Greek War of Independence, but the ceding of the remaining Ottoman territory in the Balkans to the nation states of the area is certainly seen as a good thing.

On the other hand … well, there are two terms from this era which remain in use in English, even if a lot of people probably use them without even knowing whence they originate. One is “Balkanisation” – the division of a territory into a number of small states, giving rise to problems as well as benefits. The Balkan Wars were supposed to involve Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro fighting the Ottoman Empire … but they then fell out amongst themselves. The other is “Young Turks”, which comes from the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, which was supposed to see the Ottoman Empire move towards liberalism and democracy but all went rather pear-shaped.

Caught up in the middle of all this was Macedonia. In the 1990s, there was suddenly an international row over the word “Macedonia”, because Greece got in a huge strop over the newly-independent former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia calling itself … er, Macedonia. The issue still hasn’t been fully resolved: the new country was admitted to the UN under the name “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. Furthermore, its population is around 25% ethnic Albanian. Other parts of historic Macedonia lie in Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania, Kosovo (and whether or not Kosovo is an independent country is another story … and, if it is, surely it should be referred to as Kosova rather than Kosovo, but that’s beside the point …) and, of course, Greece. And the capital of Greek Macedonia, the second city of Greece, bearing the glorious name of Alexander the Great’s half-sister, herself named after the Macedonia victory in Thessaly, is Thessaloniki. Er, also known as Salonica.

Brilliantly confusing, isn’t it?!

When I first starting reading Balkan history, in the late 1980s, it was Sarajevo which was famous for being the melting pot of the Balkans … before the tragedy of the war of the 1990s. Thessaloniki/Salonica, at the time at which this book, the author’s memoirs of his childhood, is set – the early 20th century, before the Balkan Wars – was even more of a melting pot than Sarajevo was. Christians, Jews and Muslims. Turks, Greeks, Albanians, Kurds, Armenians, Serbs, Aromanians (BTW, why do tennis commentators never mention the interesting fact that Simona Halep is of Aromanian descent?) … is there anywhere in “the Levant” (for lack of a better term) where you still get that glorious mix of peoples? Not Istanbul, not any more. Maybe Jerusalem. And we see that these people no longer want to remain under Ottoman rule as it is … but nor do many of them want what they eventually get, which is rule by Greece. In fact, the book does a good job of helping the reader understand Bulgaria’s decision to side with the Central Powers in 1915, even though it does seem so bizarre that Bulgaria should have sided with the Ottomans and against Russia.

The author and his parents and siblings left for New York in 1912. They intended to return, but never did: they felt that the city under Greek rule wasn’t their city any more … even though the city under Ottoman rule had had its problems for non-Turks as well. The city was badly damaged by fire in 1917, then its Turkish population was deported as part of the population exchanges following the Treaty of Lausanne, and then the majority of its large Jewish population was murdered by the Nazis during the Second World War.

Oh dear, this all sounds very negative. Thessaloniki today is a wonderful, thriving city. And the book itself isn’t negative: it’s a fascinating portrayal of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multilingual city. But it’s sad that, even as we hear all the time about multiculturalism in Britain, North America, Australia, Western Europe, etc, so many multicultural communities which had flourished for centuries are no more, and even many of traces of their past have been removed. It’s not the best-written book I’ve ever read, but it’s certainly very interesting.

 

 

 

 

 

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Spartan by Valerio Massimo Manfredi

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Word PressThis isn’t Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s best book, but it’s still fascinating because it makes you think so deeply about Spartan society.  We still use the words “spartan” and “laconian” today, and many different schools of thought at different periods of modern history have looked to Sparta for inspiration.  Yes, inspiration: the view of Ancient Sparta is generally a positive one, and not even because of Spartan heroics at Thermopylae but because of the idea of dedication to the state and everything being done by and for the state.

So – we have heroism, selflessness, and striving for success and even perfection.  Yet, with that, freedom and individual choice, all the ideas of personal freedom and individual choice go out of the window.  It’s much more French Revolution than American Revolution, just to be incredibly annoying and try to sum up an ancient society in 18th century terms!  Yet it’s not French Revolution-ish at all, because Spartan society consisted of a privileged elite – and that’s partly what this book is about.  Yes, we see Thermopylae, but we also see one of the major revolts of the Helots, the majority population who were subjugated to the Spartan elite.

The Spartans weren’t just privileged by birth, they were privileged by virtue of physical strength … and that’s really what makes Spartan society so uncomfortable to read about, especially in the post-Nazi era.  The (fictitious) hero of this book was abandoned as a baby because he had a disability, a problem with his leg which affected his mobility.  He might well have died, just dumped on the mountainside, but he was rescued by the Helots.  The idea that Spartans threw physically or mentally disabled babies into a ravine has been largely discredited, but that they just abandoned them to die is well attested to.  So are stories of wives of men who were unable to have children being passed over to healthy, fertile men, to breed more strong Spartans.  It sounds like a cross between Nazi eugenics and some horrific science fiction novel … but it’s what happened.  And this is the society which has attracted so much admiration.

I’ve read better books by Valerio Massimo Manfredi.  In this one, the style of writing isn’t wonderful, and he doesn’t seem sure whether he’s writing historical fiction or fantasy.  Also, the ending is a big let-down.  But it doesn’t half make you think.  So much humanity, amid a society which didn’t really allow for it … yet which also brought about so much bravery.  Sparta – what are we to make of it?

 

 

The Lost Army by Valerio Massimo Manfredi

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Word PressThis book’s based on the “Anabasis” written by Xenophon of Athens … one of the books traditionally read by students of ancient Greek, but not particularly familiar to most other people.  Wikipedia says that it is to Greek students what Caesar’s Gallic Wars is to Latin students: I sincerely hope that it isn’t as boring!  I kept wishing that Asterix and Obelix would turn up and make our A-level Latin lessons a bit more interesting.  Give me Suetonius and all his wonderful scandalous gossip any day.  Er, hmm, I appear to have got totally off the point.

Had Ancient Greece been conquered by the Persian Empire, as it might well have been, the entire course of Western history would have been different, and Western culture as it is now, and as it’s developed over the past two thousand years and more, would probably never had existed.  As it was, the Persians never succeeded in making Ancient Greece part of their Empire, despite their famous victory at Thermopylae in 480BC.  The events of this book took place 79 years after that, when Cyrus the Younger attempted to overthrow his brother Xerxes, King of Persia, with an army of Greek, mainly Spartan, mercenaries, known as the Ten Thousand.  The future historian Xenophon was amongst them, and the main character, and narrator, of this book is his fictitious mistress, a Syrian girl called Abira.

The story of “the Lost Army” is that it was defeated and Cyrus killed at Cunaxa, close to modern day Baghdad, but that the Greek survivors somehow made their way, via Kurdistan and Armenia, to the Black Sea, and from there back to Greece.  Part of the story is missing from Xenophon’s account, and Valerio Massimo Manfredi speculates that maybe Sparta was playing a double game, allowing Cyrus to recruit mercenaries from amongst its warriors without officially being involved, and that a Spartan secret agent deliberately got the survivors lost to try to prevent them from getting home and potentially embarrassing his government.  Double agents in the 5th century BC: it is fascinating how highly developed these states were, at the time of the Early Iron Age in Britain.  But mostly it’s a fascinating human story, the story of an army without pay or supplies and the story of the women who accompanied them, in an epic finding-our-way-home tale that sounds as if it should be fiction but is actually based on fact.

Ancient history can seem a very long way away from us, but it shouldn’t do.  And I think this is Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s best book to date.  Recommended.

 

 

The Girl from Ithaca by Cherry Gregory

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Word PressThis was pretty impressive for something that’s available for free (for Kindles)!  “The Girl from Ithaca” is Neomene, a younger sister of Odysseus.  No, she isn’t in the Iliad or the Odyssey, Cherry Gregory made her up; but she’s made up a very convincing character, and written a book which fits in fairly well with the legends of the Trojan War whilst at the same time being a fairly light and easy read.  Neomene is sent to Troy by Clytemnestra as part of a mission trying to persuade Helen to return to Sparta and avoid a war.  The mission, obviously, doesn’t succeed, and Neomene then accompanies Odysseus to the Greek camp and stays there.  We see her making friends with the other women at the camp, Greek slaves and Trojan prisoners, and a romance developing between her and Antilochus … until his death, which occurs far earlier in this book than it did in the Iliad, so a little moan about “inaccuracy” there, but only a little moan!

It’s an interesting female take on life in the Greek camp during the war, especially as regards nursing the wounded, and it really is well worth reading – especially as you don’t have to pay for it!

Woman in Gold

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Word Press   This film has received very mixed reviews and, yes, a lot more could have been made of a fascinating fact-is-sometimes-stranger-than-fiction true story; but it’s worth seeing even so.

It tells the story of the battle by Maria Altmann, an elderly woman living in California, to regain various paintings stolen from her family by the Nazis, including the famous painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer, her aunt, by Gustav Klimt – which was known sometimes as “Woman in Gold”, and which, displayed in Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery for many years, became so important in Austrian culture that it was referred to as Austria’s Mona Lisa.

Adele, who died young, had asked her husband Ferdinand to leave the painting to Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery after his own death.  Events then overtook the family, who were Jewish: Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer fled to Switzerland and his collection of valuable paintings was stolen by the Nazis.  In his will, he left his property to his nephew and nieces.

Years later, Austria began a programme of “art restitution” and Maria found out that the paintings had been stolen. It’s been described as cheesy and heartwarming – and, yes, Maria won out in the end.  And, yes, the fact that she then sold the paintings is glossed over a bit.  But it makes you think.

In particular, it makes you think about Austria.  I’m not going to write an essay about the very complex issue of Austria and the question of its Nazi guilt, although it’s something I’ve done quite a bit of research into (for Chalet School fanfic, of all things), but it’s something that’s never really been resolved and now probably never will be.  It was recorded that Austria was a victim of the Nazis, but Austria did vote overwhelmingly in favour of the Anschluss and there’s a lot of incontrovertible evidence showing that the Nazis were welcomed into Austria and, after the war, Austria wasn’t treated like the other states: it was, like Germany, divided up between the Allies, and didn’t regain full independence until 1955.  And it has this strange dual image in other countries.

Look, I love Austria.  I love the Chalet School Tyrol-era books.  I’ve seen The Sound of Music so many times that I pretty much know it off by heart.  I’ve got a photo on display of me sitting at an outside table at a Kaffeehaus in Vienna, a big grin on my face and a cup of coffee and a piece of Sachertorte on my plate.  My favourite café in my home city of Manchester is called The Vienna Coffee House.  But there’s the other side of it as well.  (Incidentally, Austrian state TV has never shown The Sound of Music.)

Really, this had to be about Austria – specifically, about Vienna.  The Nazis weren’t going to find paintings of family members by master artists in the homes of Jewish families in little villages in Galicia or Bukovina, or even in industrial middle-class areas in Lodz or commercial middle-class areas of Thessaloniki.  But they were in elegant, cultured, sophisticated Vienna.  And the film shows us a lot of shots of what went on in elegant, cultured, sophisticated Vienna – and this was even before Kristallnacht, and well before people were taken away to concentration camps.

I don’t mean to have a go at Austria.  I love Austria, as I’ve said.  I’ve been there three times.  Four times, actually, including a brief stop en route from Italy to Calais.  And this all happened a long time ago: there are very few people alive today old enough to have played an active role in what happened there in the Nazi era.  And it’s not just about Austria: the theft of artwork happened in many places.  Some of that artwork’s still missing: I’ve seen the reconstruction of the Amber Room in St Petersburg, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that the original’s still missing.

And Maria Altmann getting her family’s paintings back didn’t make up for what the Nazis did.  How could it?  And that’s why the people who describe this film as being “cheesy” or “heartwarming” are missing the point.  Yes, she got her paintings back, and a lot of other people got the artwork stolen from their families back too, but paintings don’t make up for lost lives, or even for lost homes, lost childhoods and tainted memories. So this isn’t cheesy, or heartwarming. Does it even really have a happy ending?  Adele Bloch-Bauer wanted the painting to be on display in Vienna.  But she couldn’t have seen what lay ahead.  Austria lost its most treasured painting.  Maria Altmann got the painting, but she lost so very much more.  It’s not cheesy or heartwarming.  Think about it properly, and what it actually is is thought-provoking.

The Ark – BBC 1

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Word PressThe Bible meets Coronation Street meets Bread!  Brilliant, BBC :-). LOL.  Incidentally, I am not classing the story of Noah as history, but it’s a story and it’s set in the past – so it counts!   So, we had Noah and his family (nice to see Mrs Noah actually being given a name), all speaking with Manchester accents.  This was good.  I like the idea of important Biblical characters speaking with Manchester accents :-).  We didn’t have any animals, going in two by two or otherwise, though, which was a bit daft – but, bizarrely, the story worked quite well without them. And, whilst there weren’t any animals, there were some cracking shots of the Moroccan desert – Ouarzazate, presumably (been there, nice place!).

The Bible doesn’t really go into any of the practicalities of the story of the Ark.  This did, and it somehow did so without making it seem like a total piss-take.  How on earth were they going to have all these animals in an Ark without any of them eating each other, Emmie (Mrs Noah) enquired.  And was it really necessary for Noah to put all their clean clothes and all their kitchen stuff on to the Ark when it hadn’t even started to rain yet –  how were they meant to manage in the meantime?  Then there were Ham and Shem and their wives, wondering how on earth they were going to get any “privacy” when they were all living in the same place.  And I’m sure there were only three sons in the Bible story, but in this there was a fourth son, who didn’t come on the Ark because he decided to stay with his girlfriend instead.

There was a more serious side to it, though.  Noah wasn’t an annoying preachy type, but he did take his messages from On High very seriously, and he did talk a lot about how the world had got off track and kids were running wild and so on … and did so without manage to sound like either an annoying right-wing politician or a mad religious fanatic.  I don’t know what traditionalists made of this, but I found it surprisingly entertaining.  Even without any animals …

 

Strangeways: Britain’s toughest prison riot – BBC 2

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Word PressI probably shouldn’t be saying this, but I rather enjoyed the Strangeways Riot!  I can’t believe it was 25 years ago (and therefore entitled to be classed as historical, LOL).  Our school bus route took us straight past the prison, and, every morning and every afternoon, we’d wave to the rioters on the prison roof and, much to our excitement, they’d wave back at us.  I don’t think the fact that they included some of the country’s most violent criminals really occurred to us!

We must have been off for the Easter holidays during part of the riot, but we were certainly in school for a good part of it.  These days, the authorities’d probably close off the road, but, back then, busy main roads didn’t get closed off unless it was absolutely essential.  Then, as now, I spent a fair amount of my life going up and down Bury New Road … and, all of a sudden, the attention of the whole nation was focused on it!  Compared to the sort of things that normally took place on a school day, this was thrilling stuff.

Anyway, enough reminiscing!  This programme tried to show things from both viewpoints – that of the prisoners, who felt that they were being held in inhumane conditions, and also that of the prison authorities, who were frightened for everyone’s safety and who had to deal with the fact that the place got totally smashed up.  There was a horrendous amount of damage – and, of course, the rebuilding all had to be paid for by the taxpayer.  £90 million, according to Wikipedia.  Not to mention the injuries.

I don’t remember having much sympathy for the authorities at the time.  OK, when you’re a teenager, the idea of people defying the authorities does seem quite exciting, but it was more than that.  This came shortly after the poll tax riots, and Margaret Thatcher’s government was incredibly unpopular in the North of England – and this was a very local thing, with the prisoners contacting the Manchester Evening News – even before the poll tax row.  Yes, it was appalling that so much damage should have been caused, and that convicted criminals, some of them convicted of capital offences, should have been able to gain control of a prison, but, as this programme showed, there were two sides to the story.  Things have probably gone too far now, with all these reports of prisoners having access to Sky TV and being able to claim compensation for minor injuries and what-have-you but, at the time, reform was needed.  And reforms have been made.

I just can’t believe that it was so long ago.  It seems like yesterday.  And yet so much has changed since then.  And I’m afraid that I still, and always will, primarily associate the riot with being one of a bunch of very excited kids waving to the rioters from a school bus!!