Face to Face with My Ancestors (The Scythians in the British Museum)

I went to see the Scythian exhibition in the British Museum on Friday night and I came face to face with a Scythian warrior from over 2000 years ago.

Was this what my great-grandfather 50 times removed looked like?

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A Book with a History

The book is green with golden letters, cloth bound. Sunlight faded the spine into autumnal yellow so that you can no longer make out the title and the author very well. When you open it, the yellowed pages rustle, feeling slightly stiff to the fingers. The title page is followed by the picture of the author printed on smooth, glossy paper that contrasts with the coarser pages that follow it. I turn the pages and think: they don’t make books like this anymore.

And then there’s the way it smells. The smell of decades which lingers on  your fingers even after you put the book down.

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Dazzling Doors (The Hungarian Parliament)

Recently I went on a visit to Hungary to spend time with family and catch up with old friends… and to introduce Young Friend of the Elephants (who caught the photography bug from me) to some of the more prestigious buildings of Budapest. In the course of which we took a copious amount of pictures, most of which proved to be a blurry failure when downloaded to the computer – but of that, more in another post…

Because today I’m contenting myself with nominating some dazzling doors from the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest (the few that came out sharp!) to Norm’s weekly Doors challenge.


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How to Live like a Local in Budapest

I just came home from home. The experience was slightly unnerving in both directions (as usual). To begin with, there was the inevitable confusion of languages: while at home, I tended to do it all wrong. I spoke Hungarian to Young Friend of the Elephants and English to my father, not to mention when I creatively mixed the two languages to the changing room attendant in the thermal baths. To end with, back home there was the immigration officer at Heathrow who asked cunning questions to find out if I was trafficking my child into the country to be some sort of a domestic slave. (She’s washing up after dinner right now but don’t tell that to the border police.)

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God’s Chosen People?

The other day, reading a history of Spain by Juan Eslava Galán, I came across the following paragraph:

Spain had become the defender of the honour of God. Theologians and thinkers (not so many of these latter) became convinced that Spain and God were united in a pact. God promoted Spain to the rank of the chosen people, protected her and granted her riches and power (the Americas) in exchange for which Spain acted as his armed arm on Earth, champion of the true faith against the error of the Protestants and the Turks.

España se había erigido en defensora del honor de Dios. Teólogos y pensadores (de estos hubo menos) llegaron al convencimiento de que España y Dios estaban unidos por un pacto. Dios la había promocionado al rango de pueblo elegido, la protegía y le otorgaba riquezas y poder (las Américas) a cambio de que ella ejerciese como su brazo armado en la Tierra, paladín de la fe verdadera contra el error de protestantes y turcos.

This notion of the pact with God and the chosen people put me strongly in mind of the Hun-Hungarian legends which I read as a child.

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Through the tube barriers on Fatal Friday

If you and I sat down to have a cup of coffee right now… well, to begin with, I’d be drinking lemon tea. And despite of all the interesting books that you think we could or should be talking about, chances are we’d end up talking about politics and football.


(Yeah, I know. It pretends to be a book blog.)

But we had a referendum last week and the UK decided to leave the EU. Simultaneously, we reached the knockout stage of the European Championship…

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On Goulash Communism

I read some books set in the Soviet Union recently – one of them was absolutely brilliant and nothing much was wrong with the other one either – and it really set me thinking back about the times I lived under a communist regime myself. It was not the sort of communist regime that made life all that hard – it went by the name of ‘goulash communism‘ for a good reason – but still it made for a, shall we say, an interesting life experience?

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33 Days

This book made it – at the last minute – on to my recent list of books that transport you, despite the fact that it’s not one of the best written books ever. In fact, the best piece of writing in it, easily, comes from the pen of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who wrote the introduction and who smuggled the book out of war-torn France for publication in America. But although Léon Werth, Saint-Exupéry’s best friend (to whom he dedicated The Little Prince) lacked his friend’s brilliance as a writer, he was an excellent observer and wrote a perfectly clear and lucid description of what it was like in those 33 days when he fled Paris with his wife from the advancing German army in June 1940.

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Fever Pitch

If you come from certain countries, football is in your blood. For some it’s just light entertainment on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Others will be in the stand even at the height of winter, in rain, snow or a howling gale. Some discuss the latest match politely over dinner; far too many punch each other in the street and set metro cars alight. Some gamble on match results and others only watch the world cup. I know which group I belong to; but which one are you?

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To Know Who We Are

Thought for the day (okay – night):

“Somos un país cuya transición a la democracia estuvo pilotada por las mismas élites que lideraron la dictadura… y quizá no pudo ser de otro modo, pero es necesario saberlo.

…Porque hablar de políticas de memoria nunca es hablar de pasado, es hablar de presente, es hablar de identidad. La memoria es la capacidad de entender lo que somos y a la vez la voluntad de querer decidir lo que seremos.”

“We are a country whose transition to democracy was piloted by the same elite who led the dictatorship… and perhaps it couldn’t be in any other way, but it’s necessary to know it. It’s necessary to know who we are.

…Because talking of politics from memory is never talking of the past, it’s talking of the present, it’s talking of identity. Memory is the ability to understand what we are and, at the same time, the will to want to decide what we will be.”

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The Great Siege: Malta 1565

I’m sitting on a rooftop terrace in Valletta, the town founded by and named after Jean Parisot de la Valette, Grand Master of the Knights of St John some 500 years ago. The terrace overlooks the Grand Harbour, and the solid walls of Fort St Angelo across the water are lit up tonight. Beyond it, sprinkled with lights, the towns of Vittoriosa and Invitta, originally called Birgu and Senglea, but renamed “Victorious” and “Unconquered” by the Knights after the Turks failed to take them in 1565. I can see the marina in Dockyard Creek whose entrance the Knights closed with a huge chain during the siege. Somewhere to my left, out of sight on the tip of the peninsula that is Valletta, beyond the rooftops, stands Fort St Elmo, whose defenders sacrificed themselves so gallantly in defence of Malta.

I’m on holiday in Valletta, and I’ve just read The Great Siege: Malta 1565 by Ernle Bradford, starting it on the plane to Malta and finishing it on this terrace, opposite Fort St Angelo.

Fort St Angelo across the Grand Harbour

The Vain Ambition of Suleyman the Magnificent

The Ottoman Turk empire was an empire based on and sustained by conquest. At the time of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent it already extended from the plains of Hungary to the African coast but Suleyman wanted more: to take Vienna and the lands beyond, to take Sicily and the Western Mediterranean.

Suleyman did not live to know it but the Ottoman empire ultimately failed in both of these goals:  for a hundred and fifty years the Turkish armies remained bogged down in Hungary without ever managing to conquer and pacify the country; and the power of the Turkish fleet was soon to be broken for good in the battle of Lepanto.

But in 1565 all that still lay in the future.

Suleyman had his eyes on Malta where the Knights of St John, expelled from Rhodes in 1522, at that moment based themselves. Malta was in the way of Suleyman’s ambitions, Malta was a menace; Malta had to be taken:

“This cursed rock is like a barrier interposed between us and your possessions.”

“So long as Malta remains in the hands of the Knights, so long will every relief from Constantinople to Tripoli run the danger of being taken or destroyed…

(Advisors to Suleyman)

On 18 May 1565, the Turkish fleet was first seen by the guards on the walls of Fort St Elmo and Fort St Angelo. A fleet of some two hundred ships and an army of at least thirty thousand men were about to land on Malta and take the island from the Knights.

“Those sons of dogs [the Knights of St John] whom I have already conquered and who were spared only by my clemency at Rhodes forty-three years ago – I say now that, for their continual raids and insults, they shall be finally crushed and destroyed!”

(Suleyman the Magnificent)

The Heroes of Fort St Elmo

And the first blow fell on Fort St Elmo.

A gun of Fort St Elmo, defending the harbour entrance

Fort St Elmo guards the entrance to the two harbours on either side of the peninsula where now Valletta is. The hastily constructed fort was a weak link in Malta’s defences and the Turks expected to capture it easily. Instead, the fort held out for a month, buying precious time for the rest of the defenders of Malta as they were awaiting the relief forces of the viceroy of Sicily, García de Toledo.

“…every new reinforcement sent into the fort is lost. It is cruelty, therefore, to send any more men to die here.” (Captain de Miranda’s message from Fort St Elmo to de La Valette, 20 June)

As it became obvious that the completely ruined fort was finally on the point of being taken, rather than evacuating it, de la Valette asked its defenders to stay there and die in order to gain a day or two more. They did, dying to the last man.

“We swore… that our lives would be sacrificed for the Faith whenever, and wherever, the call might come. Our brethren in St Elmo must now accept that sacrifice.” (de La Valette)

Fort St Elmo finally fell on 23 June. Mustapha Pasha, the leader of the Turkish army stood on the smoking ruins and looked across the bay at the solid walls of Fort St Angelo:

“If so small a son has cost us so dear,” he exclaimed, “what price shall we have to pay for so large a father?”

Apart from the Spanish captain, de Miranda, who arrived as the viceroy’s messenger on 4 June and so gallantly volunteered to fight in Fort St Elmo, and a small force of some 700 men who reached Malta only after the fall of the fort, the relief force of García de Toledo from Sicily didn’t arrive until September. Given this delay, the self-sacrifice of the defenders of St Elmo probably made all the difference in saving Malta from a Turkish conquest.

The Great Siege of Malta

Ultimately, the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 lasted four months and ended with defeat of the Ottoman Turks. Bradford tells the story in nearly 250 pages and when you get as far as the fall of Fort St Elmo, you’re not yet half-way through the book.

I remember putting it aside at that point, wanting a moment to reflect on the heroism of the fort’s defenders and wondering how the rest of the book could progress from there. The Turks had besieged Fort St Elmo for a month before it fell, and Bradford described the ebb and flow of the fight very well. But it was obvious that much more of the same stuff was yet to come; and after all, how many ways are there to describe an assault on a fort?… I needn’t have worried. Bradford managed it without problems, describing the entire siege without becoming boring or repetitive, and without giving the impression that he was desperately scrambling for new phrases and ideas. The book read easily to the very end.

At the time, the victory of the Knights was huge news all over Europe and a first-hand account of it was published in Spain within a couple of years: the diary of the Italian born Spaniard, Francisco Balbi de Correggio, one of the defenders of Fort St Michael. The title of his published diary, The True Story of All that Has Happened in this Year of MDLXV in the Island of Malta must be one of the longer book titles even by the standards of the age… but it is the most detailed contemporary account of the siege.

The walls of Vittoriosa (Birgu)
The walls of Vittoriosa (Birgu)

The Knights expected the Turks to come back to Malta for a second attempt and as soon as the siege was over, they engaged in repairing, then in building more defences. To this day, as you move around in Valletta, you can see the huge walls and ramparts the Knights built on every side. And all over Malta, the Knights left their mark: to reach Vittoriosa from Valletta you pass through fortification after fortification – unless you take the ferry across the Grand Harbour of course. Watchtowers line the coast, and the old capital, Mdina too boasts thick walls. From Mdina, the cavalry of the Knights sallied forth to harrass the besieging Turks, and at the end of the siege, the weakly defended Mdina frightened off the Turkish army by a desperate bluff: dressing up peasants, women and children as soldiers and parading them on the walls as a show of force. The Turkish army, by then demoralised and merely in search of an easy target, was deceived successfully and retired without attacking the town.

The Heroes of Szigetvár

Although saying that he would lead his army in person to take Malta, in 1566 Suleyman the Magnificent instead led his army against Hungary (again). And he died there, under the walls of Szigetvár, a small fort in the south of the country, supposedly of apoplexy, furious at the resistance of the fort. His death was kept secret, and his body was propped up in front of his tent as if he was still watching his troops least they should become disheartened. No relief force was ever sent to Szigetvár, and the fort fell soon after Suleyman’s death. The fort’s captain, count Miklós Zrínyi and his remaining men charged to their death from the burning ruins on the last day, leaving behind a booby trapped powder magazine whose ensuing explosion killed thousands of the victorious Turkish army.

Zrínyi’s Charge Out of Szigetvár by Johann Peter Krafft (public domain via Wikipedia)

But that is another story from another book: The Peril of Sziget, an epic poem by the younger Miklós Zrínyi, great-grandson of the hero of Szigetvár, himself a renowned general still fighting the Turks invading Hungary a hundred years later.

Part of the Folk Process

Or What Do Half-Drunk Hungarian Peasants and French Day-Trippers Share with Homer?

On the River Rance, Dinan, France

A few years ago we went on a week’s holiday in Dinan in Brittany where one day we took a short boat trip on the River Rance. The trip itself was quite unremarkable, but at some point our jolly skipper decided to lead us all in a song. Within seconds, to the utter delight of my children and myself, two dozen French tourists were heartily bellowing out Santy Anno, a song from the 2008 Jefferson Starship album Tree of Liberty. To our skipper and fellow tourists, however, this was  not a song from an American record but a traditional French song, liked by and known to all.

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Tolstoy, Mario Vargas Llosa, My Grandmother and Me (On War & Peace)

In my experience, no one likes Tolstoy. Not ordinary people, at any rate. Some people like Dostoyevsky, and the rest daren’t confess to never having read Crime and Punishment. But Tolstoy, like Homer, is a persona non grata at the average middle class dinner table. If you like Tolstoy or Homer, you’re in the category of a weirdo, or, if you live in England, where they pride themselves on their tolerance, you’re an eccentric.

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