To Michael, with whom I have the privilege to share love of books
Do Michael, leis a bhfuil sé de phribhléid agam grá leabhair a chomhroinnt
Michaelowi, co ukochał książki jak i ja
Michaelowi co, jako i jō przaje knigom
I became a reader in the nineteen seventies, now I realize, it was the golden age of the book. Volumes – we didn’t then know the now commonplace expressions – came as ‘hardbacks’ (w twardych okładkach in Polish) or in ‘soft covers’ (w miękkich okładkach), invariably tight, and also neatly sewn in the former case. When speaking of hardbacks we actually meant ‘books in cloth binding.’ It was unthinkable that a hardback would be enclosed between covers merely made of a harder type of cardboard. Such an underhanded move would not befit any respectable publishing house, and readers would consider it as cheating. Our expectations of paperbacks were also higher than what we demand of them today. A softback might be flimsy and disregarded by the serious connoisseur of belles-lettres, but still manufactured to last for a good while. Its pages were kept safely together with steel clamps. With time, especially on damp shelves, the clamps rusted and leaked tell-tale red stains onto the paper, which became symbolic of paperbacks in the era preceding the glued spine that entered the publishing stage in the latter half of the seventies.
It was the first dissatisfaction in the realm of letters which I encountered as an increasingly conscious and discerning reader. Copies of the books, which I eagerly wanted to read would not open easily, and were a strain on my fingers to keep them open. I was taught to respect books and not to harm them. They were spoken of in these anthropomorphic terms, as if books were living, defenseless creatures. (In a way they were, as proved by the then recent war, World War II: millions of volumes burnt to ashes in the pan-European conflagration, and with them distant lands, surreptitious trysts, memories of days long gone, captivating stories and ideas – even those forbidden – disappeared from the postwar reader’s gaze starved of sought-for reading material.) Forcing a volume to stay open at the page I wanted it to, invariably meant a breach to the flimsy spine. In no time a book originally published in a single volume devolved into two or more disheveled parts brushing sides, all loose, within the same cover.
Once, Poland was a success story of postcommunist transition. Throughout the 1980s this largest satellite state of the Soviet Union in Europe faced unprecedented privations symbolized by rationing cards, never-ending queues and shortages of absolutely all essentials. The situation eventually delegitimized the communist regime and simultaneously radicalized the population. The only solution to this dilemma (apart from following the option of a bloody civil war with Soviet involvement) was a negotiated change to democracy and a free market economy. That is what followed, despite economic difficulties heaped on the state’s inhabitants (especially in the countryside and in the urban areas with rapidly decommissioned heavy industry) in the course of the systemic transition. In 1999 Poland joined Nato and half a decade later, in 2004, the European Union (EU). The prudence and efficiency of governance in economy was such that after the current economic crisis hit in 2008 Poland was the only EU member state where economic did not plummet and actually continued to grow. In the new eastern half of the EU, the country became the partner of Germany and France in shaping the Union’s future. On the wave of these successes the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was elected President of the European Council (that gathers the leaders of all EU member states).
Numerous stories and novels by the greatest living Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare (1936-), build on anti-Ottoman stereotypes and metaphors, ostensibly directed against authoritarianism, as exemplified by communist Albania. However, the author appears not to notice the irony that, like many of his compatriots’, his own name is of an Islamic and Turkic origin. In one short novel, Komisioni i festës (1977, The Feast Committee), Kadare describes a historical event. In 1830, Reşid Mehmed Pasha (1780-1839) as Grand Vizier and Serasker (Commander-in-chief) of all Ottoman forces in Rumelia (or the Balkans) invited about 500 southern Muslim Albanian beys (that is, chiefs, warlords, village leaders) for a feast of reconciliation in Manastır (or today’s Bitola in Macedonia). The 1820s had been a destructive and murderous decade across the entire southern Balkans, where the Greek War of Independence had been fought out between 1821 and 1833. At the end of this period, in the north, the Russian armies attacked the Ottoman vassal principalities of Walachia and Moldavia in 1828-1829. Shortly afterward, the Egyptians defeated the Ottomans in Syria (1831-1833).
One Friday morning in late August 2014 I attended a seminar at the University of Stirling on how literature, Scottish literature, reflects or fails to represent the devolution. A participant remarked that within the British Empire, the English ran their emporium of commerce while the Scots built an imperium of spirit. Scottish spirit. In this view of the imperial British past, Scots wrote, invented, founded universities and educated the ballooning British Empire from Canada to South Africa, India, Australia, and to New Zealand. Unfortunately – according to this view – in the wake of the Great War when settler colonies were turned into dominions complete with home rule, these pioneers of Scottish spiritual imperium speedily morphed into Canadians, South Africans, Anglo-Indians, Australians or New Zealanders. The spiritual imperium of Scotland disappeared two generations earlier than the English’s emporium of commerce.
All of a sudden, Scotland appeared even poorer than it had been before joining the English imperial project of the British Empire. The spirit declined, though it was not extinguished, even when Scotland became just a northern appendix of England in the decades that followed World War II. Hence, the long-striven-for project that bore fruit in the form of devolution and the Scottish parliament, remains soulless, a political feat that needs grounding in the spirit in order to be revived. The spirit of the nation. The Scottish nation in a future independent, or maximally devolved, Scotland is to be civic, open, tolerant and all-embracing. But to be true to itself, this nation also must be a phoenix reborn from the long-gone-cold ashes of the aforementioned Scottish imperium of spirit.
My old home, the Monarchy, alone, was a great mansion with many doors and many chambers, for every condition of men. This mansion has been divided, split up, splintered. I have nothing more to seek for, there. I am used to living in a home, not in cabins.
Joseph Roth. 1935. The Bust of the Emperor
In 2011 my Wife and I came to Scotland. After having lived in different corners of Britain and Ireland since 2004, at long last, we found our own place under the sun, our new home, courtesy of permanent jobs secured earlier that year. In May 2010, upon leaving the building of Edinburgh Airport, a rainbow welcomed us. A good omen, we thought. We got on a Jet 747 bus to Inverkeithing. I picked up a newspaper orphaned on an empty seat. The front page hit us with the information that an independence referendum was planned. We looked at each other unsure what to make of it.
I come from Poland. Under communism, in my history school textbook Jews appeared just before the Holocaust, as a jack out of the box, and then were gone, completely. But in the conversations of adults around me Jews were constantly present. I gave little thought to this schizophrenia then, the mysteries of which became clearer to me when I began to research the history of language politics in Central Europe. How languages were standardized and shaped by the joint iron rule of official state-approved grammar, dictionary, script and orthography. Jews, living across the length and width of Central Europe, contributed to this process significantly, especially in the northern half of the region, where the idea of writing, recording the spoken word on parchment, was introduced in the wake of Christianization between the ninth and fourteenth centuries.
Jews had preserved their Hebrew-script literacy since Antiquity, ensconced in the Pentateuch, the Torah, which accompanied them wherever they went. Even the poorest of them adorned the door of their modest lodgings with the mezuzah containing a piece of paper with a calligraphed and rabbinicaly approved quotation from the Holy Book. Jan Hus, the prophet of religious and social renewal in early fifteenth-century Bohemia, used the local Slavic language (today’s Czech) in liturgy and dared to translate fragments of the Vulgate into it. (What bore on his decision was also Slavonic written in Glagolitic letters that had remained In Bohemia, vis-à-vis Latin, a parallel language of Catholic liturgy since the times of Greater Moravia.) For this, a century later he was seen to be the forerunner of the Reformation on a par with John Wycliffe. But in his own times, Hus’s views, interpreted by the Catholic hierarchy as intolerable heresy, led to him being burnt at the stake.
In another splendid fit of absentmindedness, so typical for its history, Britain now left the European Union as a result of the referendum on 23 June 2016. The supporters of brexit rejoice, while the remainers despair. Those who tipped the balancenumber fewer than two per cent of the voters, so in reality neither the option of staying in nor of leaving the EU received a full-hearted and unequivocal mandate. Now, couple of days after, the triumphant brexiters backtrack on their promises of scores of economic and financial benefits that, according to them, were immediately to follow after the exit. In a typically British manner of muddling through, they even caution the public that the freedom of movement of people between Britain and the EU will continue for some indefinite period, while on the other hand the brexiters want Britain to retain full access to the single market. In a way they wish to straddle the fence by simultaneously being in and out. Ironically, it might mean that Britain, will join the ranks of Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in the European Economic Area (EEA). It is an extension of the single market, but without the right to deciding about its principles for EEA members. They just need to follow the rules as legislated and prescribed by the EU members.