Saturday, 23 June 2018

Guest Post - Watching France 98 from Serbia by Keith Anthony - Bookish World Cup - Serbia

France 1998.  Who remembers that World Cup, can recall even what they were doing when David Beckham was sent off against Argentina?  

I was watching in the Sports Bar, just off Republic Square (Trg Republik) in Belgrade, the capital of the then remnants of Yugoslavia, today's Serbia.  It was after the civil wars which had seen first Slovenia and Macedonia (quite easily) then Croatia and Bosnia (much more bloodily) break away.  By the time I was there, only Serbia and Montenegro were left of the old country and the war in Kosovo (an ethnically Albanian stronghold in a culturally important part of Serbia) was brewing.  
I stayed four months and, despite the wider horrors, liked Belgrade a great deal.  I felt safe in its boulevards, even if the ubiquitous Cyrillic writing signposted that you had stepped out of Western Europe.  I loved strolling along Kneza Mihaila, the pedestrianised street which led from Trg Republik down to the Kalemegdan park and fortress, overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers.  Just occasionally, I'd see a "Proud to be Serb" T-shirt which, given the history, hinted at a dark side; and once I saw a street stall selling memorabilia of leaders many would consider war criminals.  But these were exceptions.

Beo (white) grad (city), as it is called in Serbian, felt at ease with itself.  The culture was rich and the people stylish as, stretching their one affordable drink an entire evening, they chilled outside cafes in the warm Serbian air.  At parties they would dance in circles to their infectious folk music, which could also be heard played by troubadours walking Skadarlja, a steep cobbled street lined with restaurants, along which gypsy children sought to sell diners their flowers.  As Serb food is dominated by grilled meats, being vegetarian, I lived off pizza, pasta and Pečurka (mushrooms).  Further up the Sava, was Ada Cinganlija (Gypsy Island), where on warmer weekends the city would relax with the lake on one side and the river on the other.    

Amidst mounting excitement, I saw Yugoslavia win a warm up game 3-0 against Nigeria at  Red Star stadium and then, during the World Cup itself, I remember walking through the parks along the Danube towards the small town of Zemun and hearing roars explode from the tower blocks as Yugoslavia scored another goal.  Ultimately their competition ended in an anti-climax to which England fans would relate, losing in the second round.  A few weeks later they had their consolation, winning the world basketball championships.  Enormous crowds came out to celebrate, throwing handfuls of valueless local currency into the air, much as we might throw confetti at a wedding; though one local I knew saw this brief high as no more than a drug-like distraction from the parlous problems their country then faced. 

Outside Belgrade, I travelled east to be taken flying from the aerodrom at Vrsač, near the Romanian border.  The journey there again felt Balkan rather than western European, with undeveloped roads, carts and little motorised traffic besides occasional tractors.  Feeling much more modern was the highway north to the exquisite Danube city of Novisad... I was depressed to hear, a couple of years later, that NATO had bombed its bridges.  It seemed that violence - sometimes hidden sometimes obvious, sometimes self inflicted other times inflicted by others - haunted Serbia: it could feel serene but was the type of place where, 18 months later, a celebrated/notorious (dependent on view) warlord could be shot dead in the lobby of a hotel where I often ate.

I don't understand or judge the ordinary Serbs at that time - perhaps I should, but I know it was not a one way street, having met a man whose parents had been ethnically cleansed from their house in Croatia... I do know I liked their city and brought home happy memories of friendly hotel staff, chatty taxi drivers, warm Serbian colleagues, elegant young men and women stretching out those drinks, none of who had resented my comparative wealth.  

I hope that - having eventually split from even Montenegro (finally consigning Yugoslavia to history) and now a candidate to join the EU - Serbia, its neighbours and their children all have happier futures, moving on from past horrors and leaders that perhaps led their parents astray because, despite that dark underbelly, this was a happy "time and place" for me and  I remember it fleetingly, but fondly, on page 80 of my book.    

Well it wouldn't be a feature month influenced by a World Cup if there wasn't a post about the World Cup in there, and I loved this one. Thank you so much Keith Anthony, and your France 98 memories are clearly more exciting than mine although I do remember where I was clearly when England was knocked out!

Ten years after his daughter Justine's death, an anxious Fergus embarks on a cruise with his wife.  On board, he meets a myriad of characters and is entranced by some, irritated by others and disgusted by one.  These turbulent feelings, combined with a sequence of bizarre events, only lead to his increased anxiety.
In a series of flashbacks, Justine enjoys an ultimately short romance, a woman concludes she killed her and an investigating police officer is drawn into her idyllic world.  Fergus, haunted by poignant memories, withdraws in search of answers.
Back on the cruise, Fergus reaches breaking point, fearing he has done something terrible.  By the time the ship returns, his world has changed forever.
"Times and Places" spans Atlantic islands, the Chiltern countryside, Cornish coasts and rural Slovenia, all of which provide spectacular backdrops to a humorous and moving tale of quiet spirituality.
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Author Bio –

Keith was born and brought up in the Chilterns, to where he returned after studying French at university in Aberystwyth and a subsequent spell living in west London.  He has a love of nature, both in his native Buckinghamshire countryside, but also in Cornwall and wherever there is a wild sea. 
Keith has been lucky enough to spend time living in France, Spain, Belgium, Serbia and Croatia, as well as being a regular visitor to Germany, and languages were the only thing he was ever half good at in school.  Since graduating he has worked in government departments, but between 2005 and 2008 he was seconded to the European Commission in Brussels and, thanks to a friend from Ljubljana he met there, has travelled regularly to Slovenia, getting to know that country well. 
Keith's other great love is music and he plays classical and finger picking blues guitar, though with persistently limited success.  He has always enjoyed writing, including attempts at children's fiction, and in 2016 he began work on his first full book with “Times and Places" the end result: an accessible, observational story, mixing quiet spirituality with humour, pathos and gothic horror, and setting it against a rich backdrop of the natural world.

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