where moth doth not corrupt. And Michael Portillo

‘where moth doth not corrupt’

My memories of Yugoslavia are like gold in that they will not tarnish. Unlike the whale bones in the Hvalsalen in Bergen that Kathleen Jamie writes about in Sightlines, they don’t gather dust. They don’t have to be hoovered, sprayed with ammonia, brushed and sponged. They need no protection or copyright. They never change and will probably survive nearly all the dissolution of my brain, so that if I become senile I will still talk about the bridge at Mostar.

When the Serbs blew up the bridge at Mostar I remembered it, its steep arch, strong and delicate as a drawn bow above the little gorge where the river  still ran wild through the town and along whose edges shoes and bottles were accumulating as plastic came to Bosnia and it was not prepared.

Thick scrub and woodland thickets over limestone ridges between green valleys. There must have been a lot of limestone in the hills and the summer must have been long and dry and the surface of the road must have been unmetalled, or partly unmetalled, because I remember that the trees and shrubs beside the road were thickly coated with chalky grey dust.  The dusty road led from a valley of villages with churches to a valley of villages with mosques.

The children who met us at one village found us a blacksmith who welded the broken frame of my rucksack and wouldn’t accept any money, then they found us a place to camp in a field by the river,  and then they brought roasted sweet corn to our tent.

Political analysis from a lorry driver who spoke five words of english: ‘Communism, bad! Tito, good!’

It was only later that I realised that this was Bosnia. Now the name Yugoslavia is as quaint as Constantinople. Or Rhodesia. And all the names came back to me in the news: Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Mostar, and from Croatia, Osijek and Dubrovnik.

As we walked up a long hill in the afternoon near the top was a house and behind a hedge in the garden people were having a picnic. I’ve still got a photo somewhere. We didn’t know whether they were muslim or orthodox and it never occurred to us to wonder.  They invited us into the garden where they were sitting on the grass and fed us.

That is the aspect of the golden age which is burnt into us: all the travellers from the sixties and seventies and later have stories about the generosity of the poor, about hospitality and trust, the meeting between us who were passing thorough, playing with nomad notions, and those we saw as settled, rooted, limited, content. They took us in, smiles stood in for words, in their kitchens and stables and gardens we experienced little glimpses of paradise, even though we knew their life was very  hard.   We had no idea that they loved their homes and valleys so much they would defend them  by murdering their neighbours.

I read that during the war Serb volunteers in training were taken to farms where the peasants demonstrated on pigs the correct technique for cutting people’s throats.

I said they don’t tarnish, those snapshot memories. But they do, when I try to write them down. they become clumsy and sentimental. And the icon becomes a cliché. In french, a cliché is a snapshot.

In another friendly province, Northern Ireland, I was walking between lifts one summer evening in the 70’s along the Antrim coast road near Cushendall.  I was taken in for a cup of tea by a working class republican family from Belfast who were staying in a little cottage. There are a number of little catholic enclaves in the glens of Antrim, though the county as a whole has a big protestant majority.  They spoke of their political struggle and sang republican songs. They had their own culture, their own music; they wouldn’t listen to pop music. When I left,  the eldest boy, who must have been about 16, set me on my way by walking up the hill with me, and just before he turned back he stopped, threw his arms to the hills and asked how Ireland could ever be divided. In the landscape he saw the evidence for his convictions. Until that moment embracing the landscape had for me been a Wordsworthian thing. In the sixth form we’d hitched up to the Lakes to get a fix of something we could recollect in tranquillity.It was a serious joke. But this boy wasn’t going to get any tranquillity from the Irish hills.  I thought about him often over the next twenty years. It’s unlikely that he came through them alive or without a long prison sentence.

What I love about Hackney is that it’s unloved. No one is prepared to die to defend these streets against imaginary enemies. I never liked those ‘I heart Hackney’ badges. Why go sticking love in where it does not belong.

Before the metamorphosis of Michael Portillo into an entertainer I heard him on the radio, when he was Home Secretary, it was in this room, which looks out onto Manor Road, and it was the afternoon, and he said that there are three letters which drive fear into the hearts of Britain’s enemies, and those three letters are SAS. (I don’t know what the SAS was doing at the time, were they running around in the desert before Blair came to power?) The secrecy of the SAS is a gift to propagandists: the evidence for Britain’s decline as a world power can be ignored by those who believe in a band of super heroes covertly working their military magic, killing terrorists we didn’t know existed, and unaffected by defence cuts because their very name undoes the enemy.

There was a close relation between the home secretary’s love for both his country and the conservative party, heightened it seemed in his case by his being half spanish, and   his passionate hatred of Britain’s enemies or those he decided were Britain’s enemies  and his devotion to the professional soldiers who would attack those enemies and whose every action could be justified. Could love make someone so odious? I looked out of the window and saw the usual two or three or four or five hackney residents: probably a couple of orthodox jews, one or two muslim youth, an old lady with a shopping trolley. How easily populist rhetoric is deflated by the plod or stroll or shuffle of someone just going to the shops or walking the dog. I could tell that none of them believed passionately in the SAS, or Queen Elizabeth,  or cottage gardens and village greens; they didn’t lament the passing of red phone boxes, they didn’t believe that Britain had fought the Germans practically single handed, they’d probably fail a citizenship test, even the ones who were born here, because they just didn’t care. Most of them don’t even love a football team!  .M. Q. E.  I could be wrong though. For all I know they were all wearing union jack underpants.

For someone fond of a different national myth they are refugees from oppression and poverty who have found security in a free country. (It’s a free country being one of our favourite slogans.)

                (is there an ending? what untarnished memories for the residents of hackney….)  am I saying that isolation is what saves us from nationalism or fascism? that’s sad. that to save themselves from isolation in a hostile world people pick up their feet and march shoulder to shoulder, do a goose step even to show how far they’ve come from a quiet stroll to the shops

So I’ve looked a little into Portillo’s career and here are a few of the things I’ve found:

from an article for the Sunday Times, January 4, 2004:

‘The most disastrous day of my political career occurred in 1995 when I was Secretary of State for Defence. In a serious lapse of taste I cited the SAS in a speech to the Conservative Party Conference. I strayed into absurd chauvinism because I knew what the Tory activists wanted to hear, and I was fixated with getting a standing ovation. It wasn’t just the speech that was foolish: I had made an idiotic calculation. I thought that approval from the thousand Conservatives in the hall was more important than the impact on the general public through television, or on political commentators, or on those in the armed forces whose trust I needed.

That day of personal infamy is merely a vivid illustration of a choice that faces politicians all the time. Should we say things that please our party faithful, and maybe shore up our position on the greasy pole of promotion, or should we risk disappointing them by taking more moderate positions, that might attract new voters?

I argue that whilst it’s not very important to have distinctive policies, what do matter greatly are the party’s tone, behaviour and appearance.’

You can find this on his own website. The notorious speech itself is not on the site. But it soon pops up on youtube. Quoted separately on a Daily Mail site are the words I remember; they don’t appear in the extracts from the speech on youtube:

“Three letters send a chill down the spine of the enemy:  SAS. Those letters spell out one clear message. Don’t mess with Britain!”

So I got the anatomical detail wrong, it was spine not heart.  And this, also from the Daily Mail, and from 1995, but I don’t think from the same conference speech:

“Anyone, they say, is entitled to change his mind. Not about the defence of Britain, you’re not. You either feel it in your heart, in your bones, in your gut, or you don’t.”


 Ah, the gut! That subtle, political  instrument….

                      We’re getting back towards the beginning now, with heart, bones and gut, back to the untarnished, the unalterable.  But he’s confessed that the fervent expression of his innermost convictions was a lapse of taste, was absurd chauvinism, and that the only things that really matter in politics, (this article having been written during the triumph of New Labour,) are tone, behaviour and appearance. And that he’s changed his mind about the very thing you’re not entitled to change your mind about.  But that’s ok, because he didn’t believe it anyway.  Anyway, soon after that  he decided the best thing to do was to make television programmes about great railway journeys. And other stuff. You can read on the Guardian website an article he wrote for the Observer about his Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella….


Strange, the naivety with which he lays bare his ambition and lack of  moral principles and political beliefs. Or is it me who’s naïve to be surprised by any of this? 


He reveals his ignorance of history by expressing surprise at finding romanesque churches in northern Spain; he thought they’d all be gothic or baroque. The point is of course that during the romanesque period southern Spain was occupied by the Moors, so churches came later; but the north has a much longer christian history. (I only mention this because he bangs on about history in his conference speech…)  

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