About Me

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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Things My Father Never Told Me

How old was I? Eleven or twelve? I can't recall. What I do remember is that I did something that brought my father to tears - the only time in my whole life I saw him cry.

What I did was not very terrible, and I meant no harm. I'd gone to the National Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths, then in Somerset House on the Strand, to look up my family's history. A bit precocious, you may say. But it was so easy in those days. You simply turned up there and pulled the relevant registers off the shelves. My mother was German-born, so Somerset House was no help as far as her own family was concerned. Anyway, it was my father's side of the family I wanted to explore to see what I could find out about my surname.

I looked up my father's birth date. To my surprise he had no entry. Someone else called Sadgrove was listed as having been born that day, but not with Christian names I recognised. I should have drawn the obvious conclusion and kept quiet about what I'd seen, but things aren't always obvious to a boy of that age, and I was not gifted with tact. I went home and blurted it all out to my father. I was dismayed at his reaction. He took a while to tell me the story of how he had changed his given name by deed poll on reaching adulthood. It wasn't the name in itself, rather the memories it conjured up of how he had been relentlessly bullied as a youngster. Whenever he heard himself called by name, it brought back the vilification, cruelty and scorn he'd been subject to in school days - this was how he put it. He didn't go into details. Then he turned away and wept. And I stood there silent and numb, helpless before these sluice-gates of memory and emotion that I'd unwittingly opened up. It was a defining experience of my life.

I revisit that scene often, reliving the pain of unintended disclosure. I've thought about it on this Fathers' Day. I don't mean my own discomfort that afternoon, for it was nothing compared to my father's terrible grief. What I glimpsed for the first time was how abuse - which bullying always is - has effects on victims that last a lifetime. My father had climbed clear of his childhood, had worked hard, made a success of his life, married and had children. And now, without intending to, I'd uncovered what had lain undisturbed for decades. I was shaken by the capacity of historic wounds to haunt, and hurt, an adult man so many years later. And by my own part in it, even though I was the occasion not the cause. How could I begin to understand? I'm not sure I understand it even now more than half a century later.

As I look back to my own childhood on this Fathers' Day, my memories are of how happy it was. My father played a big part in that. He enjoyed the company of children - I saw later on in life how good he was as a grandparent to my own children. As a three year old he was taking me for walks among the silver birch trees of Petts Wood, teaching me to ride my tricycle and pointing out the Southern Electric "green trains" that ran beneath a bridge we had to cross on the way while I peered down between the girders. We played together in the sand pit in the garden. He built a layout for my Hornby clockwork "O" gauge model railway. One Christmas when I was seven, my parents gave me an 18 inch pavement bike. It had only one brake which failed at the top of Muswell Hill. I can feel even now the terror of wheels beneath me sliding out of control and gathering speed. The steep hill plunged down before me like a cliff. "Steer into those trees!" my father yelled, and I could hear the panic in his voice; "steer left and into those trees!" I did, and have always believed that he saved my life that day.

Perhaps I'm right to regard that visit to Somerset House as marking the end of childhood, or at any rate as representing an important rite of passage. For it showed me for the first time that my father was a vulnerable human being who had had a troubled past. It wasn't that up to then our relationship had been unalloyed bliss. Mine had been a middle-class upbringing like most others with its ups and downs, the good times and the not so good, the fallings-out and reconciliations that make up normal family life. But never had the raw humanity of either of my parents been exposed in the way it was that day. I saw a wound that I guessed would never fully heal. And I was not ready for it, not yet.

Psychoanalytic theory teaches us how important the moment is when we realise that our parents are flawed human beings like us. It's a real threshold in our growing up, a necessary step towards adulthood to recognise that for all that they have given us, they are not the omnipotent, infallible beings we believed them to be in our infancy. You would have to ask my own children at what point my own brokenness and fallibility became clear to them, when they learned that I could never be the perfect father, though I could still aspire (and hope) to be the "good-enough parent" they would always need me to be. I knew that I did not love my father any the less for what I had found out, indeed, I believed I would respect him for being candid with me about it. I also knew that he would not love me any the less for discovering it. How did I know? Because, I think, the foundations had been laid by a good-enough father that could bear the burden of what subsequently came to light.

I once wrote a book* that explored stories in Genesis and Exodus about sons who were "lost" for various reasons. Abel, for example, who was murdered by his brother, and Ishmael who was banished to the desert by his father; and Isaac who was nearly offered up as a sacrifice, and Joseph who was exiled to Egypt out of envy, and others. Among the characters who populate these stories are all-too-many broken, wayward, self-serving fathers who paint an unlovely picture of humanity at its most compromised. Immersing myself in those texts got me thinking hard about my own personal history as a father to one man and a son to another. (You'll forgive the non-inclusive language, but biblical masculinities were central to the theme of the book.) The controlling narrative throughout was the parable of the Prodigal Son. Pondering that marvellous story made me ask the questions, in what ways have I been the prodigal "lost" son needing to be welcomed home and forgiven, and how in turn could I be that loving father towards my own children?

On Fathers' Day, I want to give thanks for and honour the memory of my father to whom I owe the gift of being alive, and to whose "good-enough" parenting in the critical years of childhood my adult self owes so much. As for the father I have been in turn for more than forty years now, I pay tribute to my four children whose capacity for understanding and forgiveness is one of the miracles of family life. That loving father in the parable is the inspiration for all of us who are lucky enough to be fathers. And all of us in every relationship in which others look to us for protection, kindness and care. For he shows us what God must be like, the Father who loves his creation and every living thing, who longs to welcome us home; and who when we make the journey back from our far country comes running to meet us.

The image at the top of this blog is a medieval wall-painting in a church in Budapest that shows God the loving Father listening to his Son's prayer of agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Fathers' Day seemed a good occasion on which to share it.

*Lost Sons: God's long search for humanity, SPCK 2012.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Blue Danube to Black Sea Day 14: Budapest again

Friday 7 June
I’m glad of the late flight that gives us this additional day in Budapest. Well, Pest actually. We begin by walking upstream along the promenade. We come to the “shoes” in memory of the Jews who were hurled into the icy Danube in 1944. It hardly needs saying how moving this sight is: boots, shoes, slippers, what looks like a little girl’s dancing shoes. Votive lights with Hebrew texts have been placed among, and even inside, these infinitely forlorn objects, so full of pathos, that speak more eloquently than words ever could about “the heartbreak at the heart of things”. And when I remember that the South Koreans drowned in a Danube within sight of this shrine, it simply adds to the painfulness of this part of the river bank.

As we walk on, the immense Parliament building looms up above us. We go inside the visitor centre and find that there is a place available on an English language tour of the building this afternoon. So I’ll come back to that later. The sun has come out and it’s warming up rapidly. We walk out of the shadow side of the Parliament (nice turn of phrase?) and into the sunshine. The glare from this extraordinary building is almost painful. Soldiers are on guard. The anti-terror barricades are not the crude lumpish blocks you see in London but integrated into the architecture of the square, which is surrounded by fine buildings. Indeed, everywhere in central Budapest the buildings are on a monumental scale. The green spaces are a relief from this surfeit of grandeur whether its imperial, neo-classical, art nouveau or modern. It’s tempting to compare it with Paris (again) but the difference is that Pest has no Notre Dame and no Left Bank to set off the monumental with something more intimate in scale. Buda has those things of course, but once these were separate cities and their respective urban styles architecture seem to tell different stories. Like Newcastle and Gateshead, maybe?

We go inside the Basilica of St Stephen’s. Aggressively neo-classical, vast and imposing, a noble Greek cross that on the outside fully rises to the challenge of the imperial architecture that surrounds it. But the interior feels gloomy and lifeless. Like St Sava in Belgrade, far from bringing me to my knees it leaves me cold. But it’s humanised by a group of young schoolchildren at the front of the nave who are singing their hearts out under the tutelage of their teacher.

But the gloom of the Basilica is more than made up for by our discovering the Church of the Assumption by the river. It’s Pest’s parish church and its oldest. The site is ancient: under glass in the floor we can see extensive remains of the Roman camp that once stood here on the bank of the Danube. There are remains of Romanesque and this provides the highlight of this rebuilt gothic church. Behind the high altar is all that’s left of some wall paintings. The crowning glory is a most beautiful depiction of the Assumption. It’s graceful and delicate, art that is full of love and devotion. But I’m even more moved by a painting to one side. It once showed Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. Almost all of him is lost, except his hands held together in prayer, just like the famous Dürer drawing. And what’s best of all in this Romanesque Wall painting, surviving intact, is the image of God the Father, listening intently to his Son’s prayer as he hides behind a tree. The association must be to the Garden of Eden - how winsomely it’s done, and how rich theologically!

And so back to the Parliament Building for the guided tour. I won’t describe the architecture: the travel writers can indulge their superlatives and rhapsodise about this amazing edifice. Suffice to say that it’s a cross between the fairy-tale Chateau of Pierrefonds in northern France, and St Pancras Station with, of course, the obvious homage to the British Houses of Parliament (but this is in much better condition). National rhetoric and a (very very) proudly imagined past come into things at every turn - in the symbolism of the architecture, the sculptures of national heroes and the ordinary Volk - artists, craftspeople, scientists, philosophers, engineers. Gold leaf is on display in abundance.

But the clue to this place lies at its geometric centre. Here, underneath the dome (more Florence than Rome or St Paul’s), the crown regalia are kept in a sealed case of toughened glass. Round it is an innocent looking rope - but alarmed. That in turn is guarded by two military officers with guns. Touch the ropes, alarms will sound and the soldiers will as likely as not fire - that’s the message we are given. Oh, and photography, allowed everywhere else on the tour, is not permitted here, again on pain of - well, who knows? The regalia which go back to the eleventh century and Hungary’s king-Saint Stephen I are clearly treated as holy objects, the embodiment of the nation. Is this the real reason photography is forbidden, not any security risk so much as the violation of a sacred space that bears mystical significance?

I walk back via Freedom Square. On the far side is a memorial to the hundreds of thousands of Hungarians who perished in the Holocaust. Most were Jews, but we must never forget the Roma, the political dissidents and the gays who also ended their days in the extermination camps. This memorial shows the eagle of the Third Reich descending on Hungary brandishing a huge and evil claw bearing the year 1944 that’s about to lay hold on and devour the woman below, the personification of Hungary. On the ground is a classical pillar twisted out of shape. It’s powerful but it’s hard not to read this grotesque image as kitsch. There is an inscription in Hebrew and Hungarian, and a date - 19 March 1944. This was the day the German eagle landed on its former ally, its hanging black claw dragging Hungary viciously into the Reich that would last a thousand years. “That’s what the Nazis did to us.”

But that way of telling the story by blaming the Nazis has become extremely politicised. It seems that Viktor Orban had the memorial erected under cover of darkness and without consultation in order to establish once and for all where blame for the Hungarian holocaust belonged. But history does not bear this out. Hungary appeared to welcome the Nazi occupation with the same enthusiasm as Austria did. What’s more, Hungarians were not only complicit with their occupiers but initiated their own outrages against their fellow citizens including the Jews murdered in the river. (There was also a terrible massacre at Novi Sad, then under Hungarian rule. I don’t recall hearing anything about it when we were there.) So those protesting against this memorial, who include liberal politicians, civic leaders, academics and relatives of the victims, have brought memorabilia from 1944 and laid them out at the foot of the monument. They have also displayed images, photographs explanatory texts in all the world’s principal languages. They are challenging the Orban government to take responsibility for what happened in that terrible year and tell the truth about Hungarian involvement in it. This protest memorial has not been swept away - yet. If it were to be, there would be an outcry.

Of all that I’ve seen on this cruise, this memorial will, I think, stay with me longest. The image is meant to be unforgettable and it is - for all the wrong reasons. It encapsulates so many of the dilemmas of Central and Eastern Europe that we’ve been faced with on this journey: how nations tell their stories, how they face up to their past, how they define their identities in the present, what kind of futures they aspire to. To that extent, the rhetoric of the Parliament Building and of this memorial is the same. Am I right to be worried about the nationalism they both represent in this beautiful but paradoxical country? And can its Europeanism save it from all that’s corrupting in the emergence of the politics of the far right?

And if this is a question for Hungary, what about the other Danube lands from Germany and Austria in the west to Serbia and Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria in the east? And what about the UK? While we’ve been away the results of the European Parliament elections have shown how the postwar politics of our continent are being reframed in ways that couldn’t have been predicted when we were growing up and when the postwar political consensus seemed settled not only for our own lifetimes but those of our children too. Britain is as exposed to these changes as anywhere else in Europe. 

It’s tempting to see history as offering precedents. The rise of right wing populism across the world suggests parallels with the 1930s. I’ve wondered whether visiting Orban’s Budapest in the 2010s is like visiting Berlin in the 1930s - beautiful, seductive but full of portents. I’m sure this is far too facile. “The chief practical use of history is to deliver us from plausible historical analogies” said the Liberal politician James Bryce quoted in a recent article in the London Review of Books, “Populism and the People” by Jan-Werner Müller. Travelling around central and eastern Europe opens your eyes to the history of our continent but we should be wary of drawing parallels. That may be one of the most important things I’ve learned here. Good Europeanism must be earthed in a proper use of history, not an imagined past.

So if this voyage has taught me anything, it’s made me a better European, to quote the fellow-traveller who shared her thoughts with me as we were drawing into Novi Sad. What does “better” mean? Not so much that I’m more convinced than ever of the importance of the European Project, though I think that’s true. No, I mean that it’s revealed how little I knew my continent, how western my assumptions about had been, how much I need to learn about all those who share our common European home, whether the people next door or those who are further down the street.

And what’s true of the continent I call home is also true of the planet I call home. If travel doesn’t make us citizens of the world, why take ourselves off at some cost to cruise down a far-off river not our own? But it is our own. That’s the point. We are privileged to see what we have seen. It’s been hugely stimulating and enjoyable. But beyond the pleasures of a holiday, the companionship and conversation, stories to tell and memories to share, sightseeing, fresh air, relaxation and rest, what matters for travel, what is ultimately important, is how it changes us, and therefore what we do next. I suppose that's why I've been writing this blog of our voyage - not as a record of things seen and done, but as a way of woolgathering, thinking on the page about how and why it should make a difference.  

But for now it is time to get on the coach that will take us to the airport.

Blue Danube to Black Sea Day 13: Return to Hungary

Thursday 6 June
Our last full day on the ship. We have a leisurely breakfast. I go up on deck to write up this blog. It is overcast but warm. We have been extremely fortunate with the weather on this cruise. Rain and thunderstorms have been forecast, but the rain has fallen when we’ve been tucked up in our cells (sorry, cabins) and apart from the spectacular storm at Belogradchik, which was such a gift photographically, we have dodged them on our walks and visits.

After two weeks, voyagers are talking to one another more readily now, sharing stories and experiences, reminiscing about the sights we have seen, contemplating going home. I find myself conversing with a number of people I haven’t spoken to before about everything from Bird Watching to Bach to Brexit - nothing  especially deep, nothing especially lengthy, but the kind of talk that happens when people feel relaxed with one another. Maybe it’s the knowledge that our life together on this ship is coming to an end in the next few hours, but this has been a pretty comfortable kind of “total community” (to go back to my musings on Day One).

By midday we are back at Budapest where our voyage began. We dock by the Chain Bridge, further upstream than when we were here before. From our cabin we have a marvellous view across the river to Buda with its citadel crowning the Acropolis on the other side of the bridge. Is there a city in the world that has exploited its river so effectively as Budapest has the Danube? It’s a silly question really when you think of Paris or London or New York or Lyon or Newcastle. But here it’s the strongly individual character of the river itself that adds texture to the city. Even when the Danube is not in flood, its surface is never placid here, never truly calm, always turbulent with currents and eddies unlike most other great rivers in the world, at least not by the time they flow through their great cities. And we are all conscious of the tragedy that has happened in the Danube since we were last here, the sudden catastrophic sinking of that pleasure boat only a few hundred metres upstream from where we are moored at this moment. The circumstances are still not entirely clear, but you have to wonder how much the rapidity and capriciousness of the Danube were factors in the deaths of so many people last week.

We board the coach for our last excursion, a panoramic drive around the city. We start with the left bank, Pest. Our guide is fluent and informative, telling us about the succession of great buildings we pass, pointing out their architectural styles and highlighting sites of particular significance in the city’s history. The profusion of Art Nouveau is striking, especially the famous entrance to the Zoo. We drive round the Place of Heroes, and pass the South Korean Embassy where it’s moving to see flowers laid in memory of the Danube’s victims last week.

At the Holocaust Memorial alongside one of Budapest’s central synagogues, we learn about the Jewish community in the city. By no means all its members perished in the Nazi era because unlike in more isolated communities in the countryside where whole communities were sent to the extermination camps, there were simply too many Jews in Budapest for their persecutors to achieve the Final Solution they had set themselves. Nevertheless there horrific stories told about Budapest’s Jews, but the Nazis were not the only perpetrators of terrible cruelty. Once, hundreds of Budapest’s Jews were rounded up on the banks of the Danube, told to take off their shoes, then tipped into the icy river to perish. The Hungarians who committed this outrage were themselves summarily shot minutes later. Budapest still has a significant Jewish presence with a dozen or so synagogues, far fewer than before the war, but these are still a vital part of the city’s religious diversity. Most of them are liberal or reform Jews, rather than orthodox.

Not far away we drive down a street where buildings opposite each other are pockmarked with bullet holes. They preserve a memory of events only eleven years after the end of the Second World War when the abortive Hungarian Uprising was brutally suppressed by Soviet forces. I can just about remember talk of events in Hungary in 1956 when I was a six year old. Looking at Budapest today, with all its vitality, confidence and cosmopolitanism, by all accounts a successful and certainly a truly European city, you would not guess that so much has had to be reconstructed following the events of the 1940s and 1950s.

After Bucharest, I’m wary of making judgments based on very little knowledge. Appearances can be deceptive. I’m aware that the policies of Viktor Orban’s regime, while not questioning Hungary’s commitment to the European Union, are infusing it with right wing, nationalistic ideology that is in real tension with the European ideal. And although this has nothing to do with religion, it’s troubling that Hungary’s Catholic history and identity is being invoked to justify it. The bitter memories of the socialist era doesn’t altogether explain this phenomenon, though similar tendencies are observable in other former Eastern bloc countries as we’ve seen on this journey. Maybe Hungary’s historic identity, rooted in the Magyar migrations from central Asia and the distinctive language they brought to Europe have contributed to a Hungarian exceptionalism that sets it apart from its neighbours whether Germanic and Slav. These are among the seeds sown by what our guide has to say to us today. Plenty of food for thought to take back to Brexit Britain tomorrow.

We cross the Danube by the Chain Bridge, the oldest extant and most venerable of Budapest’s bridges. The magnificent view over the river opens up, including the Parliament Building upstream. There, just below, is our ship. I look down at it fondly. However enjoyable they are to sail in, I don’t find these cruise ships beautiful to look at. They are supposed to look shiny and sleek, but unlike seagoing vessels, their sheer length and lack of draught suggests an oversized floating railway carriage. But it has been our home for two weeks and we have been looked after well by people who care about what they do and do it well.

Over in Buda, we are embroiled in heavy traffic so our guide chats amiably with us about our cruise. How many countries have we visited? Which did we like best? Hungary of course! comes the reply, for people on holiday are always eager to please. No seriously, he insists. There’s no clear answer to this unanswerable question. He goes through them by turn. When we get to Serbia he says, “People often find Serbia difficult. Maybe that’s because of the history and how it has shaped people there. But I think it’s a wonderful country.” This is intriguing. So is this. “Now that you’ve spent time in Serbia and Croatia, you may think you now understand the Balkan wars. If that’s the case, then you need to go to Bosnia-Herzegovina. You’ll realise that you haven’t begun to understand it at all.” Like Brexit, as he quips later on, which is another of those Schleswig-Holstein questions (only ever understood by three people, the first of whom had forgotten, the second had died and the third gone mad).

We get out at the citadel. It was inevitable that the tour would end here at the Fishermen’s Bastion. It is thronged with people. The view is undeniably very fine but I can’t get any decent images for hoards of youngsters taking selfies on the parapets. And the concept of this self-conscious over-visited site feels like a tourist concoction, Budapest-as-cliché, not the authentic Hungarian city we have come to see. The river on the other hand, the city’s star attraction, never falls into trope. Is that because it’s a working river? Discuss.

But what I shall remember from this walk is our guide's parting shot to us. “Remember the Slovenian national anthem” he says. It’s the only one in the world that’s about world peace rather than one nation’s flourishing. Of course I have to look it up on the web. It goes like this:

God's blessing on all nations, Who long for that day When across the whole world No war, no strife holds sway; Who long to see that all are free;
No more shall foes, but neighbours be.
As for the Bastion, there is nothing to detain us here. We walk away from the bustle down steep steps. Suddenly it is quiet again. We come across an intimate pedestrian square created on a terrace surrounded by elegant modern buildings. I notice one of them is an architect’s practice, maybe the one that designed this project. There’s a small cafe there. We sit down and enjoy cool drinks while a little girl no more than two or three years old dances in front of  us. She is oblivious to her audience. She is filled with the unselfconscious joy of being alive. It’s beautiful and touching to watch.
We walk the promenade back towards the Chain Bridge. We are overtaken by cyclists in a hurry, and by trams ancient and modern. Lovers linger by the riverside parapet with eyes only for each other. On board ship, there are rites of passage to mark the end of our voyage. We reminisce with fellow guests over an amiable dinner, then go back to our cabin. Budapest is beautiful by night, and we have a spectacular view of it from our window.  
But for us, the journey is not quite over. We have a late flight tomorrow, so we shall have time to discover more of the city in the morning.

Blue Danube to Black Sea Day 12: Vukovar and Osijek

Wednesday 5 June
At Vukovar. This is one of the few calling points on this cruise whose name is familiar. Mohacs, Vidin, Pleven, Tulcea, Novi Sad, Rousse, Cernavoda... maybe I ought to have heard of these because they are all sizeable towns but I hold my hand up to admit that I haven’t. (Yes I know, of course we’ve heard of Budapest, Bucharest and Belgrade too... but these are capital cities, so there’d be no excuse.) But Vukovar? Surely everyone who lived through the 1990s and was paying even the slightest attention to the news from beyond our shores has heard of this little place on the Croatian (south) bank of the Danube. For this was right in the front line of the Yugoslav War between Serbia and Croatia, and took a terrible hammering in the conflict in the autumn of 1991.

Our young guide is one of the best we’ve had on this voyage. She tells us she studied English and German at university, but she has an intellectual and cultural hinterland that’s impressive. She cuts straight to the chase as we form up in our group. “Over there you can see the town’s water tower, built in the 1970s. It was hit in the war of 1991. It’s a symbol of all that Vukovar suffered in that year. This city was almost completely flattened in the war. Those buildings that weren’t destroyed were riddled with bullet holes that bear witness to the ferocity of the fighting. Some of them are being restored but others have been left as they are, as a memorial to the conflict of that year.”

I was in my early forties in 1991. At Coventry Cathedral where I worked at the time, we raised money for the victims of the conflict and filled enormous skips with foodstuffs, medical supplies, blankets and children’s toys for Vukovar. But I’m ashamed to say that I had only the vaguest understanding of the political and ethnic roots of this conflict that was happening, not on the other side of the world but in our own continent of Europe. In particular, I had forgotten that the Danube was the front line of the war between Serbia and Croatia; neither had I remembered the three month Siege of Vukovar, nor one of the very worst of the atrocities, the assault on the town hospital when two hundred non-Serbian patients and staff were taken away in trucks, corralled in a remote farmhouse for three days, then slaughtered like cattle. And they were only some of the many thousands of victims (on both sides) who perished by the Danube that year.

This is the first time we’ve felt that a guide has been candid with us about the events of a quarter of a century ago. Of course, the narrative is much more complex than a tour guide can possibly present in a few minutes. But there’s no dispute that the war happened as a direct result of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milocevic’s expansionist plans for a Greater Serbia, aided by Serbian militia leaders, in particular Jaradan Karadic, This is the “secret in the family” that we’ve found it so hard to penetrate in conversation with Serbians. It is incredibly hard for them to speak about their recent shameful past. It’s always easier for the victim to tell the story than the oppressor who has been shamed before the world, as the trials for war crimes and genocide at The Hague have done.

So I ask our Croatian guide about relationships with Serbia today. “They are normalising” she says, without hesitating, but I suspect choosing her words with care. “Another generation has grown up since those days. The young think in different ways from their parents and grandparents. This country is now a member of the European Union. My generation wants to break down barriers, not erect them. So our relations with Serbia are no different from those with any other of our neighbours. Maybe she wants to add, “even if the history will still haunt us for many years to come.” The healing of memories doesn’t happen in a few short years. And as I’ve written already, the ethnic fault lines haven’t gone away. 30 per cent of Vukovar’s population is Serb. In this Catholic country, there are sizeable minorities of Orthodox believers. And although religion did not (she says) play a part in the Croatian conflict (which sets it apart from those in Bosnia and Kosovo), its temples and rituals still act as markers of identity. Peace and reconciliation are real enough here, I think. But it’s sobering to realise how hard-won they are, how fragile they must continue to be for decades to come.

She is speaking as we drive past the railway station. “We don’t have trains any more” she laments. The building is ruinous. It cuts a forlorn figure among the twenty first century industrial and commercial buildings going up all round it. I badly want to get out and photograph this poignant scene, but time is not on our side. I do my best from the coach and wonder, not for the first time on this cruise, how humanity can be so brutal to its own kind, how little our race has learned from the relentless wars and conflicts that have bloodied the soil of our continent.

We are reminded that Croatia has been a member of the EU since 2013, the second of the former Yugoslav states to join (the first was Slovenia which joined as far back as 2004 and is in the Eurozone, unlike Croatia). I ask what effect EU membership has had on the country. It’s mixed, says our guide. On the one hand the young especially value the freedom of movement they didn’t know before. On the other hand, there has not (yet) been much inward investment to show for member status, so there’s been a brain drain of young bright able professionals to Germany especially, and also (surprisingly?) Ireland. She doesn’t mention the EU funds that have helped reconstruct the country since the war and developed its transport infrastructure, particularly here in Slavonia. A long way from the national capital Zagreb and the country’s celebrated coast, East Croatia is not much visited by tourists. Which is why she thanks us for coming to this less well known part of her country. It’s sincerely meant.

40 kilometres over the level plain and along an arrow-straight road stands the city of Osijek, the fourth largest in Croatia. The name means “ebb tide” because it stands slightly above the marshlands of the Drava flood-plain that always threatened to flood the environment. Murad of antiquity, it was a colonia of the Empire in Hadrian’s time. After the Ottoman centuries it was taken by the Habsburgs in the late seventeenth century and the old city is hallmarked with Austro-Hungarian splendour. The eighteenth century town includes grand military buildings, a courthouse and a Friary with a large baroque church popularly known as Saint Antony’s. Of Padua, this one, patron saint of lost things and lost causes, depicted on a large eighteenth century painting of dubious quality but undeniable charm, and better still, in a contemporary sculpture outside, He is holding the infant Jesus seated on the book of the scriptures, a pose familiar all over Europe. “Tony, Tony, come around, / Something’s lost and must be found” quips our guide.

And indeed we seem to be back in the catholic west in this royal free city where the spirit of Empress Maria Theresa might have walked last week. You feel that Budapest and Vienna can’t be far away. Trinity Square, surely one of the most elegant piazzas in Europe, is dominated by a column dominated by a baroque sculpture of the Holy Trinity. It was put up in 1729 to give thanks for the end of the plague Osijek had suffered and that had carried off some of its most distinguished citizens. I can’t recall ever having set eyes on a full-blown sculpture of the Trinity before, certainly not in a public square. I’m uneasy about the theological propriety of this, if I’m honest, but the patron or sculptor would no doubt reply that if it’s permitted to paint the Trinity, why should a sculpture be inappropriate? But this is precisely the point. What our visits to Orthodox churches have taught us is that painting is an entirely different medium from plastic sculpture. A two-dimensional drawing or painting is a “projection” that demands to be read in a symbolic way (because that’s the only way to make sense of it). A three dimensional “representation” - a bust, a statue - risks being reified into an object in its own right as if to say, the reality is just like this, only bigger. That clearly won’t do in a monotheistic religion. Which is why the iconoclastic controversy is so important in the development of the separate artistic traditions of the churches of the east and the  west.

This old city would be the perfect imperial picture postcard except for one thing: the pockmarked buildings that remind us of a conflict much more recent than the War of the Spanish Succession or the Napoleonic campaigns. Eight hundred people were killed when the town was shelled from August 1991 to June 1992, about half the total number of citizens from Osijek killed in the Croatian War of Independence. And lest my account has seemed to be heavily tilted against the Serbian expansionism that gave rise to the conflict in the first place, its important to recall that at least five Croatian officials were indicted for war crimes against the Osijek Serbs. Here as everywhere else, conflict brutalises all its participants. In these Balkan wars, everyone was a victim in the end. As was truth, always the first casualty of war.

The complete story, inevitably much more complex and intractable than popular narrative, has yet to be told here in the lower Danube. Some historians say we are not even close to gaining a full perspective on the Great War more than a hundred years ago, let alone this one. It takes time for history to coalesce, settle down into a shape and configuration that its participants can own for themselves. Just as I’m aware, as the cruise comes to an end, that my own first impressions of it jotted down in this blog will take time to mature, become nuanced, even begin to do justice to the complexity of what I have seen and learned in this fortnight on the river. How do you take in such a tangled, such an ancient, such a contested political history from the deck of a luxury cruise ship and the window of an air-conditioned coach? What, intellectually speaking, is “responsible tourism” in these circumstances?

We wander round Osijek’s civic centre, a triangular piazza where the only wheels allowed apart from bicycles and push chairs are the trams. They have been running for 135 years, says our guide proudly. So this is a real city. It feels lively enough to qualify, even if it only has a pro-cathedral, the red brick neo-gothic church of St Peter and St Paul whose spires dominate the town. Outside, children are playing in the fountains and clambering on to a bronze sculpture depicting the citizens of Osijek. By the marina coffee shops are doing a brisk trade. There’s a holiday atmosphere here. The long summer school vacation is about to begin.

As we arrive back at the ship, a few of us notice what looks like a haphazard pile of concrete slabs on the grass by the quayside. This turns out to be a striking and eloquent sculpture. The slabs have been cut, presumably from buildings destroyed in the war, with triangular heads to resemble rough-hewn tombstones. On each is a “found” relic of the conflict - a piece of shattered glass, a graffito, pieces of twisted steel. The stones are all leaning over at crazy angles like a procession of dominoes frozen at the moment of toppling. For this is indeed “the toppling city”, a town so completely shattered by war yet with its spirit, even in the act of falling, not torn from it, not yet, not ever. It reminds me of the “Plumb Line and the City” sculpture in Coventry Cathedral where the uprightness and integrity of a community, symbolised by buildings of every shape and size, is measured against Amos’ vertical plumb line suspended above it. Here, nothing is straight, nothing is true, nothing stands upright any more.

And yet the spirit of the place, its daemon if you like, is undefeated despite the worst that the aggressor can do. Why did not our excellent guide mention it when the sculpture is clearly meant to be the first thing you see when you land in this damaged but powerfully evocative place? It’s another of those visits on this cruise that would not be on anyone’s bucket list for scenic beauty but is so well worth spending time in for all that it has to tell us about the times in which we live.

So taken am I with this sculpture that I forget to check the time. I am the last on board, only a couple of minutes late, but nonetheless chided for it (in the nicest possible way). Everyone knows that I'm the one the ship is waiting for because when we go ashore, we check ourselves out with our electronic key cards, and check back in again when we return. I'm sure this is a detail of twenty-first century cruising that readers of this blog would want to know about.


The ship sets off on its last and longest leg back upstream to Budapest. The community resumes its dreamy existence dislocated from the historical turbulence of these troubled shores. There is afternoon tea in the lounge with cakes and conversation to enjoy. Apart from that I spend the afternoon on deck watching the miles of forest drift by, interspersed by the occasional settlement that has gathered round a white baroque church spire. I realise again how remote this landscape is, how little populated. I’ve already written about the lack of drama on this cruise compared with the Upper Danube and still more the Rhine. There is little to see other than at the high points of any Danube voyage such as the Iron Gates. But this very evenness is part of the beauty of it, this fortnight of green, ordinary time that has a mesmeric, almost retreat-like quality because of the way it distends the cycles of each day. Millions of trees, vast expanses of water, wide skies become all the more miraculous when there is nothing else to look at. This for me is the most important spiritual insight of this fortnight. As I’ve said, it makes a contemplative out of me - or has the potential to if only I will let it.

But there is one moment of drama that takes us by surprise and has us holding on to our hats - literally. We’ve all noticed how high the river is at present, flooding the banks, invading the forests, its level even swallowing up the bottom of the tree canopy. We approach a border bridge that carries a railway line. It can scarcely be higher than the height of this ship’s bridge. In fact, we would collide with it were it not for some clever technology that lowers the entire bridge, foremast and everything else protruding above deck level. One of the crew walks along and tells us to sit down as we pass underneath. You could literally touch the steel girders. If the river were a few inches higher, this stretch would be impassable to ships like ours. It’s an exciting photo opportunity we SLR brigade are not expecting.

By dinner time I’m left entirely alone on deck. I’ve loved these hours of solitude with the woods and the water and the reddening sky. It’s like being on the beach when everyone else has packed up their things and gone home. It’s a travel-writing cliché to talk about the magic of such moments. It would take a Delius to find a musical language that could do justice to this peace and tranquility of a Summer Night on the River. And a Wordsworth to do the same in poetry, given that we are sailing on his eponymous ship.

Tonight there’s a pub quiz to test our knowledge of the Danube and the places we’ve visited. Our foursome does pretty well, though we struggle to match memories and mental images to so many of these places with (to us) unpronounceable names. Two weeks of five countries with their distinctive landscapes, cities and towns, their churches and mosques, their citadels and antiquities, flow into one another. How did that great Danubian writer Patrick Leigh Fermor keep his memories distinct, unentangled, write it all down with a hindsight that was so clear, so focused?

But maybe it doesn’t matter too much. What matters is the experience of the river and its people that has touched us, maybe changed our perceptions in important ways. Could it have been transformative? Only time will tell.

The ship sails on towards Hungary.