Magazine article The Spectator

Pedalling into Politics

Magazine article The Spectator

Pedalling into Politics

Article excerpt

THROUGH THE EMBERS OF CHAOS: BALKAN JOURNEYS by Dervla Murphy

John Murray, 20, pp. 388, ISBN 0719562325

Perhaps it is not a good idea to call Dervla Murphy 'redoubtable'. She is a strident anti-militarist and might not enjoy being given the sort of name that could so easily belong to an old dreadnought or hunter-killer submarine. But the 71-yearold cycling grandmother can hardly be thought of as anything less. While half the population of her age retreat into a world of sheltered accommodation and televised snooker, she has opted instead to pedal against the steep mountain inclines of the Balkans, Needless to say, the terrain proves to be by no means the most arduous or dangerous part of the odyssey.

Like anyone who has witnessed the humanitarian disaster of that part of the world over the last decade, Dervla Murphy has some strong views about the politics that underscored it. It should be said from the first that she mourns the death of .the Yugoslav state. `Of course in Tito-land there were stresses, prejudices, corruptions and inequalities,' she fleetingly concedes, `but so there are today in the world's most respected democracies and at least Yugoslavia's inequalities were fewer and milder.'

This is all a bit sweeping, but for the sake of brevity we shall let it pass. In Serbia in 1999 she encounters some hostility to spoken English (except when its Irish brogue is detected), but in a Belgrade market, Svetlana, a streethawker selling t-shirts inscribed `Love is Lovely, But Don't Trust It', takes her into her confidence and explains how Milosevic destroyed academic freedom in the university where she previously taught. The lecturer-turned-trader then sums up the situation:

We've got Milosevic's Special Police, neoChetniks in Montenegro, KLA gangsters swapping guns for drugs in Kosovo, warmedup Nazis in Croatia, Muslim mercenaries fighting on the Serbs' side in Bosnia. Every country has those types but in stable conditions they surface as criminals who can be dealt with.

Clearly Svetlana is no stranger to Kilburn.

As Dervla Murphy winds her way through the successor states of the former Yugoslavia, she chronicles her conversations with all those who offer her hospitality, their kindness, their excellent coffee, their suffering and their individual experiences of sadness and loss. We also hear a good deal about their loathing for whichever ethnic majority drove them out - or troublesome minority of whom they said good riddance. …

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