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Ramona Mitrica- interview with a foreign friend - about the place Romanian creativity occupies in the imagination of the artistic world (Part 5) - 20 November 2020
The Romanian version of this interview was published in CULTURA Magazine / nr. 617 / November 2020
 https://revistacultura.ro/2020/despre-locul-pe-care-il-ocupa-creativitatea-romaneasca-in-imaginatia-lumii-artistice-2/

Photo: Mike Phillips and Constantin Chiriac (Liverpool, 2008) 

CLICK HERE FOR FULL INTERVIEW (Part 1)
CLICK HERE FOR FULL INTERVIEW (Part 2)
CLICK HERE FOR FULL INTERVIEW (Part 3)
CLICK HERE FOR FULL INTERVIEW (Part 4)

More about Mike Phillips http://www.profusion.org.uk/topic/9-pikephillips.aspx

Ramona Mitrica - Interview with a foreign friend. About the place Romanian creativity occupies in the imagination of the artistic world

I want this interview to tell a story - a story about you MIKE PHILLIPS.
How has your experience of Romania and Romanian arts affected and influenced your views as a critic and an author?

Ramona Mitrica: Well you’re right. It would be interesting to explore this question of how to distinguish between individuals when these individuals actually define themselves by their ownership of a collective culture. But, although I think that’s very relevant to understanding our current direction, I’d like to park that question for a moment and return to the issue of your own cultural background and how it links up with our culture. I’m thinking about the issue of the European City of Culture, which, as you know, will be in Timisoara in a couple of years. You’ll be familiar with the arguments and the benefits, because we were both involved in discussions about this award when Sibiu was competing for it some years ago; and leaving those to one side, it’s probably true to say that being chosen as City of culture in Europe is proof or a vindication, if any were needed, that Romania is a notable historical pillar in the landscape of European culture. At the same time it’s clear that the language creates a substantial barrier. Add to this your sense of belonging to a cultural landscape where virtually all non Anglophone cultural figures are excluded.  Given that background it’s not difficult to accept your participation in the culture dominated by Shakespeare or Dickens, but your claim to a relationship with the cultural world of Mircea Eliade or Lucian Blaga needs a bit more explanation.

Mike Phillips: Well, talking about “a relationship with” your cultural world does not quite communicate what I meant. I think I was trying to say that all cultures actually had something in common. That being so, understanding the culture which influences an artist increases your ability to appreciate the cultural framework which has produced any other artist. In any case we need to consider the issue of how different cultures penetrate each other. Think of the fairly obvious case of jazz pianist Lucian Ban, and his entry into the culture of jazz music. His music exists in the same cultural continuum as that of Thelonious Monk or Bud Powell, while at the same time being recognisably related to the tradition which has produced very different musicians such as Radu Lupu. Or to take a different sort of case, look at the culture fostered by Russian puppet theatre, and you’ll see its imagery reproduced in the theatre of Purcarete as well as the imagery of several contemporary directors. In the arts there is a repeated recycling of cultures and cultural artefacts. So, in my view, there is no question to answer. The idea that cultures can be singular and separate always seems to be a disguise for a separatist political argument.

Ramona Mitrica: Of course I agree with your point, but you know that is not my argument. We started out talking about how you can distinguish between different kinds of culture, and you’ve said a lot about how cultures develop and come together, but you still haven’t answered my question about your own cultural background and how and why it relates to the ones I’m talking about.

Mike Phillips: Well this gets more and more difficult, because I began trying to describe the cultural atmosphere in which I grew up, and the truth is that it was assembled from fragments of different cultural traditions. It required a consistent creative response, which depended on the environment I happened to be in at the time. Imagine this – start with the animist spirits of the countryside - an Old Hag taking her skin off and rolling around in a ball of fire till dawn, a beautiful woman with hooves for feet, the Moongazer straddling the highway with his face shining in the light of the moon. All these characters of my childhood imagination co-existed and clashed with Jesus and Father Christmas.  Having said that I can imagine some idiot coming along and declaring that this is a writer emerging from a quasi African culture dominated by animist fantasies and spiritualist dreams. They’d probably make it a central argument of a doctoral thesis. I could even persuade myself that it was more or less true when I remember the home of my childhood - long afternoons of sunshine and trees, or the metronomic rhythm of waves retreating over the mud flats bordering the sea, or the flocks of parrots obscuring the dawn sky. None of these memories, however, point to a single unbroken tradition or meaning. They certainly don’t constitute a culture within which it was possible to be confined or even nurtured. You can see the problem if you consider it, because my next important cultural experience involved reading the thrillers I found on our Hindu neighbour’s kitchen table, and these were about Los Angeles and New York, using an unfamiliar English, describing foreign civic structures and beliefs – Hammett, Chandler, Mickey Spillane. The point I’m trying to make is that I was not, at this stage in my life, aware of any barriers, apart from time and distance, separating me from any available culture. As a consequence, I don’t believe that I ever thought of myself as limited by any one network of practice.  But growing up in a time which spanned the end of colonialism and the reinterpretation of nationalism I faced a continual challenge. For example, I was once, early in my career, invited to speak to a meeting at the University of Minnesota. For some reason I held forth about European writers like Graham Greene or Gunther Grass, among others, tracing their links and resemblances to African writers like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. I’m not sure what I was thinking, but it was an attempt at summarizing the effect on some authors of huge cultural changes. In any case, I told myself, at least I was telling them something different, something about the breadth and variety of the world and its cultures.  This was a mood which only lasted for a few hours. In the bar that night, I was approached by one of the participants in the audience for my lecture. “I listened to you,” the man said. “Then I figured this guy don’t know who he is.” My identity (who he is), I gathered, could be determined by my cultural interests, and, on the surface there was nothing about me, a black Caribbean migrant crime fiction author, which would have legitimized an interest in the broad traditions of European writing. This was the moment at which I realized that my lecture had been deeply inappropriate for the audience. That shouldn’t have been a surprise. As a rule audiences of every kind expected (or demanded) from me some sort of reflection on racism, but on this occasion, my attention slipped, and I had merely been talking about matters which interested me. In the light of this understanding I was once again reminded about the extent to which social and political needs also decided most people’s grasp of cultural meanings.

Ramona Mitrica: I’m not going to argue with that. I got your point which I assume is that the details and highlights which identify the nature of specific cultures are not important in themselves because they are merely signposts pointing to the universal truths which lie behind every cultural manifestation. I am also familiar with the demand that artists offer themselves as representatives of a culture or a group to the point of stereotyping themselves.  But you could argue that this is the consequence of an international consensus in which artists who come from outside the dominant envelope are seen, with the rare of exception of the odd one like Brancusi, are seen as people who don’t matter. In New York or London or even Berlin, you can talk about an English novelist or a French poet in terms of their general approach and grasp of imagery, or philosophy. Talk about a Bulgarian or a Kazakh and you have to trot out a cultural background which will justify your attention. So I’ll agree with you, but I still want an answer about how you got past these cultural barriers, to engage with such differences.

Mike Phillips: I have to say that there is no real answer to that question, except to say that my own exclusion from the mainstream of the culture in which I lived encouraged me to ignore those barriers. When I visited Romania for the first time, I was simply looking forward to coming into contact with a new and different place. Looking back, I was fortunate because I was only interested in identifying who people were and how they related to matters that I already knew. The result was that everything seemed equally strange. Or to put it another way, here was a world which seemed strange because I had never encountered its details before. On the other hand, once I understood those details, they formed patterns which were comfortable and familiar.  For example, that first time I sat in the theatre in Sibiu watching a Chekov drama. I didn’t understand the language. The actors and their physical movements were unfamiliar, but seeing the performance took me back to my schooldays in London. I used to haunt a theatre, the John Vanbrugh, in the London University campus where the RADA students mounted their productions. Years later I realized that I had seen a huge number of the future stars of British theatre while they were still students, Tom Courtney, for instance, in an exhausting version of Goethe’s Faust. Sometimes I was the only person in the audience, but I remember seeing my first Chekov there, among other playwrights popular at the time – Sartre, Giraudoux, Anouilh. The point was that I was encountering an intensely classical tradition which had formed a platform of European culture. But when I thought about it, this was also the cultural construction which, with its Graeco-Roman roots, had penetrated every society in the world. Some days I’d go for lunch in the Astra Park with the festival director, Constantin Chiriac, surrounded by the monuments of Transylvanian society, survivals of village life from all of the different segments of its population, but we talked in much the same way as we would years later when we met in London or Edinburgh or Freiburg.

Ramona Mitrica: I understand that. You’ve been friends with a lot of Romanians for years. You’re talking about a high culture which is internationalist and European. But this is only a part of the society and the culture. You’re not talking about the Orthodox religion, or about the customary behaviour of the countryside, or about the politics. You met people like Iohannis when he was just establishing himself as mayor in Sibiu, but you haven’t mentioned the cultural context and so on. Some people would say that in order to grasp the nature of Romanian culture you would need to engage with all those matters.

Mike Phillips: Look, you’re right, but I’m talking about the point where I was just beginning to encounter Romania. Yes, I want to go on to talk about the effect of exactly those things you mentioned.

End of fifth instalment

-----
Dr Mike Phillips OBE FRSL, FRSA

Mike Phillips was educated at the University of London (English), the University of Essex (politics), and at Goldsmiths College London (education). He worked for the BBC as a journalist and broadcaster between 1972 and 1983 before becoming a lecturer in media studies at the University of Westminster. After a spell as Resident writer at the South Bank Centre in London, he was appointed Cross Cultural Curator at the Tate Galleries in Britain, and then worked as Acting Director of Arts (Cultuurmakelaar) in Tilburg in the Netherlands. Later on, he lectured in Milan and worked as a freelance curator in London, Belgium, Venice, the Netherlands and Los Angeles, notably with the Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen.

He was awarded the Arts Foundation Fellowship in 1996 for crime fiction, and the OBE in 2006 for services to broadcasting. He served as a Trustee of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, but he is best known for his crime fiction, including four novels featuring black journalist Sam Dean: Blood Rights (1989), which was adapted for BBC television, The Late Candidate (1990), winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger Award, Point of Darkness (1994) and An Image to Die For (1995). The Dancing Face (1998) is a thriller centred on a priceless Benin mask. A Shadow of Myself (2000) is about a black documentary filmmaker working in Prague and a man who claims to be his brother. The Name You Once Gave Me (2006) was written as part of a government sponsored literacy campaign.

Mike Phillips also co-wrote Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain (1998) to accompany a BBC television series telling the story of the Caribbean migrant workers who settled in post-war Britain. London Crossings: A Biography of Black Britain (2001) is a series of interlinked essays and stories, a portrait of the city seen from locations as diverse as New York and Nairobi, London and Lodz, Washington and Warsaw. Recently he wrote a series of libretti for the compositions of musician Julian Joseph, culminating in a version of Tristan and Isolde, performed at the Royal Opera House.

Together with Romanian arts administrator and facilitator Ramona Mitrica, Phillips has worked over the last two decades to establish the cultural consultancy Profusion, which created the annual Romanian Film Festival in London. During that period he co-authored, with Stejarel Olaru, a history of the life and times of the notorious serial killer, entitled Rimaru - Butcher of Bucharest. In addition, as joint director, editor and translator, he worked on and helped to publish a series of Romanian works, including books by George Arion and Augustin Buzura. In 2019 he was awarded the Trofeul de Excelenta of the Augustin Buzura Cultural Foundation by Academician Professor Dr Jean-Jacques Askenasy, at a ceremony in the Military Circle in Bucharest.

Mike’s book The Dancing Face will be re-published by Penguin in 2021.

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Seminar dedicated to publishing Romanian literature - 10 November 2020

 

Monday 26 October 2020, the Publishers Without Borders group hosted the online seminar “Publishing Romanian Literature” on their Facebook page.
Publishers from Romania and the United Kingdom took part in the event: Denisa Comănescu (Humanitas Fiction, Bucharest), Alexandra Rusu (Nemira, Bucharest), Ramona Mitrică (Profusion Books, London), Susan Curtis (Istros Books, London), Cheryl Robson (Aurora Metro Books, London), together with Magda Stroe (Romanian Cultural Institute, London).

The event was moderated by journalist Rosie Goldsmith and publicist Emma House, and was part of Romania Rocks!, the first Romanian-British Literature Festival organised by the Romanian Cultural Institute (RCI) in London, in partnership with the European Literature Network.

 

The discussions touched on the importance and necessity of translations from the Romanian literature, as well as talking about books which have been already published, about future projects, and about the financing which is available (the RCI’s TPS-Translation and Publication Support Programme, and Publishing Romania). The discussion also mentioned book distribution, bookshop networks, online sales, as well as book fairs in Romania, and literature festivals, either physical or virtual.

The discussions further mentioned poetry translation (Ana Blandiana, Nina Cassian, Magda Cârneci), and literature written by women, as well as the translation of theatre plays (Alina Nelega, Andreea Vălean, Matei Vișniec, Mihail Sebastian). Also mentioned was Romania Noir and translations of crime literature (George Arion, Stelian Țurlea, Oana Stoica-Mujea, Bogdan Hrib, Bogdan Teodorescu).

Besides the publishing houses represented by the participants in the discussions, other publishing houses which published Romanian literature in English were mentioned: Bloodaxe, Plymouth University Press, Dalkey Archive Press.

Emma House, founding member of Publishers Without Borders, underlined the importance of the increase in the number of translations, in a context in which translations account only for approximately 4.5% of the books published each year in the UK.

Rosie Goldsmith, director of European Literature Network, presented The Romanian Riveter, a cultural magazine she has recently published. It contains translations of Romanian literature – prose and poetry, book presentations, articles, and recommendations for new reads. The magazine is distributed free of charge, both electronically and in a printed version.

Here is the list of Romanian books translated into English, and published by the British publishers invited in the “Publishing Romanian Literature” seminar. Enjoy!

Profusion Books:
‘Report on the State of Loneliness’ by Augustin Buzura
‘Attack in the Library’ by George Arion
‘The Innocent and Collateral Victims of a Bloody War with Russia’ by Liviu Antonesei
‘Greuceanu – Novel with a Policeman’ by Stelian Țurlea
‘Kill the General’ by Bogdan Hrib
‘Anatomical Clues’ by Oana Stoica-Mujea
‘Rimaru – Butcher of Bucharest’ by Mike Phillips and Stejărel Olaru

Istros Books:
‘Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent’ by Mircea Eliade
‘Gaudeamus’ by Mircea Eliade
‘The Trap’ by Ludovic Bruckstein
‘With an Unopened Umbrella’ by Ludovic Bruckstein
‘Life Begins on Friday’ by Ioana Pârvulescu
‘Definitions’ by Octavian Paler
‘Sun Alley’ by Cecilia Ștefănescu

Aurora Metro Books:
‘The Star with no Name’ by Mihail Sebastian
‘The Town with Acacia Trees’ by Mihail Sebastian
‘Women’ by Mihail Sebastian
‘When I want to whistle, I whistle…’ by Andreea Vălean (in Balkan Plots anthology)
‘The Body of a Woman as a battlefield in the Bosnian War’ by Matei Vișniec (in Balkan Plots anthology)
‘Nascendo’ by Alina Nelega (in Eastern Promise anthology)

The Romanian version of this article by Ramona Mitrică (Profusion Books) is available here https://convorbiriromanesti.co.uk/blog/2020/10/31/seminar-dedicat-publicarii-literaturii-romane/

 

Tags: seminar
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Tristan and Isolde in Transylvania? Check this out! - 08 November 2020
Trista and Isolde
 Tristan and Isolde, retold in Julian Joseph's oratorio with a contemporary,
multicultural backdrop to a libretto by Mike Phillips.
Recorded at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Featuring the BBC Concert
Orchestra.
 
BBC Radio 3 – Thursday 12 November at 14.00
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000p8g1
 
In this oratorio for modern times Isolde longs to escape to the
Transylvanian countryside. She meets Tristan and falls in love. What she
doesn't realise at first is that she has met Tristan before when he was part
of a street gang in London and she tended his injury. Tristan also harbours
a dark secret concerning Isolde's former fiancée.
 
Carleen Anderson – Isolde
Ken Papenfus – Tristan
Christine Tobin – Iuliana/Brigid
Cleveland Watkiss – Vasile
Renato Paris – Marko
Julian Joseph Trio - Julian Joseph (piano), Jerry Brown (kit), Mark Hodgson
(bass)
 
Members of the Julian Joseph All Star Big Band
BBC Singers
BBC Concert Orchestra, conductor Clark Rundell

 
 

 

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Ramona Mitrica- interview with a foreign friend - about the place Romanian creativity occupies in the imagination of the artistic world (Part 4) - 31 October 2020
The Romanian version of this interview was published in CULTURA Magazine / nr. 616 / October 2020
https://revistacultura.ro/2020/despre-locul-pe-care-il-ocupa-creativitatea-romaneasca-in-imaginatia-lumii-artistice-iv/

Foto: Mike Phillips and Cristian Mungiu (Soho London, 2003)

CLICK HERE FOR FULL INTERVIEW (Part 1)
CLICK HERE FOR FULL INTERVIEW (Part 2)
CLICK HERE FOR FULL INTERVIEW (Part 3)

More about Mike Phillips http://www.profusion.org.uk/topic/9-pikephillips.aspx

Ramona Mitrica - Interview with a foreign friend. About the place Romanian creativity occupies in the imagination of the artistic world

I want this interview to tell a story - a story about you MIKE PHILLIPS.
How has your experience of Romania and Romanian arts affected and influenced your views as a critic and an author?

Ramona Mitrica – I’ve been very good so far, and I’ve let you describe your encounter with our cultures in your own way, but now I have to interrupt you and try to clear up the general direction of some of the things you’ve said. To begin with, I notice that you’ve been talking about the similarities between artists and cultures irrespective of where they come from or think they belong, but the linkages are not very clear to me. As a matter of fact, in the last part, part 3, you have made a distinction between two different traditions. One is the classical European, as exemplified by Shakespeare, Goldoni, Tolstoy and so on, the other is exemplified by the style of modernist writers like George Arion. What I want to know is how you connect all of these traditions, and how they fit into your thesis about the relationship of various cultures all over the world. We are speaking here specifically about the Romanian culture, which we see as being shaped by specific ways of living, and by specific historical circumstances, going back to the roots of European culture, with the Roman Emperor Trajan, for example. What is or how do you describe the relationship between this, and, for example, a collection of English speaking postcolonial cultures?

Mike Phillips – I guessed you’d let me talk myself into a box, but let me try and explain. Part of the problem is concerned with our contemporary usage of the word culture, along with the way that we think of people’s social behaviour. Most of this development is due to the influence of an academic language of ideas, dominated by Francophone philosophers, like Baudrillard and Foucault, and their use of words has penetrated relentlessly into the language we employ to talk about ourselves. So we talk now about everything which influences our behaviour as “culture”.

As you would expect, this has revealed resemblances and relationships between all kinds of cultures, not to mention the human tendency to take over and exploit every behaviour which happens to be convenient or useful. This is one of the reasons I began with talking about my own cultural background, which was full of cultural experiences that were similar or identical to experiences from areas of which I’d never heard.

For example, one of my childhood memories is about my grandmother’s brother, Uncle Joey, who was an oilfield worker in Trinidad. He visited us in Guyana every year and we all looked forward to seeing him. The highlight of his visits came in the evenings, when he sat on the stairs, in the dark, with us, the children of the house, to tell stories. For a long time I was convinced that my uncle’s stories were special and specific – tales of witches and evil spirits, mysterious beggars and talking animals, desperate mothers and fathers sacrificed - intrinsic building blocks of “our” culture. But much later on, I found myself reading or listening to various versions of the same stories, which had the same narrative links between internal and spiritual worlds, and which were imbued with similar attempts to explain the mysteries of human existence. In the circumstances, it seemed to me, we all began our lives with very similar cultural foundations.

Ramona Mitrică – That’s obviously true. But when you’ve said that, all you’ve said is a recognition of what we share as human beings. You’re right about the fact that stories like the ones you describe can be found in every part of the world. When you talk about them it sounds very familiar. They’re fundamental elements of everyone’s folk art. But if one recognizes these activities as the foundation of a culture, and if one follows up the modern language of public discourse by calling every human activity ”culture”, how can one distinguish between different kinds of human beings?

Mike Phillips – That is what makes it so difficult. I’ve been talking about a group of memories and trying to link them up with the impressions which defined my grasp of Romanian culture, but the problem is that I’m not sure at any point how to distinguish it from any other network of cultural phenomena.

Let me take any day wandering in Bucharest or Sibiu or Iasi. Or, indeed, any one of my conversations with you (Ramona) and Liviu (Antonesei), George (Arion), et cetera, et cetera.

We all belonged, as we spoke, to an open internationalist culture in which the major figures were European or came with European credentials. Our references were literary. Our discussions were based on analysing or understanding the past of European culture. The problem was that, wherever we happened to be, this method of communication was part of a different world, a species of language, which refined, then excluded the speech and the habits of every day, ordinary people. Therefore we could engage with Shakespeare or Pushkin or Dickens wherever we came from, whether it’s Nairobi or Chicago or Cluj, without reference to local origins or behaviour.

So let’s put this definition of culture, that is, the practice of “international” writers, intellectuals and poets to one side for a moment, because I suspect that language itself creates bridges which are more to do with recording history than reporting culture.

On the other hand, when we talk about “cultures” in the contemporary moment, we are also talking about the massive social changes which have been introduced in the last century, by industrialization, by universal education, and by the dominance of one or the other system of politics.

One of the characteristics which has most clearly marked these changes, is a gradual shift from literary to visual communication, from the habitual use of words to the mundane reproduction of pictures and images.

This has created a very different relationship to “culture”, which you can see merely by looking at the collection of images presented on the screen in front of you. So if you want to, you can share the experiences of a shepherd in the Carpathians or a policeman in a Danube port, at the flick of a switch. Do you want to know what it’s like to walk down a street in Washington? Get yourself the right software and you can do it. Do you want to soar above the mountains or share the intimate moments of family life in a Transylvanian village? Get yourself a drone. In this sense we’re all migrants now, free to explore the cultures of the world. If we can afford it.

One night on the way back from Sibiu I sat in the back of a taxi, occasionally trembling with terror as the driver negotiated the long climb down the mountain, spinning round the endless curves, speeding past huge lorries packed with machinery, and trying not to look at the massive falls which lined the sides of the road. In contrast, he was cheerful and chatty, talking about the different countries in which he’d worked – Italy, Spain, Germany, and bombarding me with the usual questions – who are you? What do you do? Why are you here?

“Is it true,” he said at point, swerving round a loaded truck, “that the English put milk in their tea?”

We were halfway to Bucharest before I finished answering that question. From this distance our ensuing discussion, about mamaliga, and chiftele, and sarmale, sounds banal, but, apart from taking my mind off the dizzying road and its dangers, the conversation reminded me of how much I had in common with this stranger, along with dozens of friends halfway round the world. Thinking back on the trip, however, I am reminded about the old joke about the Romanian New Wave, which said you could tell a production of the New Wave because it would feature two people sat in a car, talking interminably.

Well, here we are. I started my reply trying to illustrate the connection between my own existence as an artist and the way that it links me to cultures which seemed, at first, very distant.

But I’ve also been thinking, while I spoke, about how to describe what I saw of the Romanian culture. To begin with the habits and behaviour I was observing under the label of culture, were all in a state of flux. The recent dictatorship had presided over a complex system of patronage and censorship which had established a kind of stability on the world of arts and literature. On the other hand, it had also created an atmosphere of stasis. At the end of the century, a foreigner, like myself, could be forgiven for feeling that nothing much had happened since the days of Marin Preda, whose first volume of the novel Marometii exemplified most of the nativist elements that Romanians cherished as a corrective against the Communist influenced wave of social realism. But it was this moment, the last decade of the century, when the country’s cultural tableaux seemed to shake and go through a kaleidoscopic splintering. I imagine that this was partly to do with the vanishing of the restrictions of censorship, along with the rediscovery and retelling of recent history. As powerful as any of these changes however, was the impact of technology, which is where the cinema comes in.

You (RM) introduced me to Cristian Mungiu at what must have been the beginning of his career in films. We met in a café in Soho, and he reminded me strongly of one of my students from the postgraduate course I had been teaching at the University of Westminster. He was slight, pale and friendly, and he was interested in much the same issues as any of the other young people who were my friends in London. It was some time before his importance as a cultural figure struck me.

I make the point because it seems to me now that some of the cultural changes pioneered by the cinema were about the changing style and concerns of a new generation. This was a group which had begun to reject the limitations of old certainties in a manner similar to their counterparts in the rest of Europe, and they looked at the past with different eyes, examining their history with a fresh and nuanced appraisal. This was not simply a matter of taking political sides or delivering commentaries about past regimes. Unlike Preda’s villagers whose anxieties were about the future of a common identity, Mungiu’s heroines, along with Mr Lazarescu and the heroine of Sunt o Baba Communista, seemed to me to share a new and individualistic anxiety about the possibilities of the future. The joke about characters conversing in cars, isolated from everything around them, wasn’t just about production costs. It was actually a trope which highlighted the solitude and alienation of our contemporary lives.

There was yet another element which served as a boundary around the space in which these culture wars were taking place. This was related to my early impressions about the existence of a spiritual hinterland where rural customs, the Orthodox religion, and a deep reverence for nature, all came together to form a foundation for Romanian identity. This element also served as a platform from which the past could interrogate a future for which it would be, itself, responsible.

“… this ours no longer had any trace of meaning in real life. The country’s men? But who among the persons present truly cared for the country?” (Augustin Buzura. Report on the State of Loneliness. Profusion, 2009. p. 498)

Buzura links Romania’s military and political history together with the customary folk practices of its countryside, along with the mystical traditions which emerge from its relationship with the natural world. In this way, he avoids the banality of the “island of Latinity” claim, and carries out an exploration of Romanian identity which argues its authenticity, while staging an intervention into the contemporary cultural wars.

This is the point at which a kind of answer to your question about identity begins to emerge - “how can one distinguish between different kinds of human beings?”

End of fourth instalment

-----
Dr Mike Phillips OBE FRSL, FRSA

Mike Phillips was educated at the University of London (English), the University of Essex (politics), and at Goldsmiths College London (education). He worked for the BBC as a journalist and broadcaster between 1972 and 1983 before becoming a lecturer in media studies at the University of Westminster. After a spell as Resident writer at the South Bank Centre in London, he was appointed Cross Cultural Curator at the Tate Galleries in Britain, and then worked as Acting Director of Arts (Cultuurmakelaar) in Tilburg in the Netherlands. Later on, he lectured in Milan and worked as a freelance curator in London, Belgium, Venice, the Netherlands and Los Angeles, notably with the Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen.

He was awarded the Arts Foundation Fellowship in 1996 for crime fiction, and the OBE in 2006 for services to broadcasting. He served as a Trustee of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, but he is best known for his crime fiction, including four novels featuring black journalist Sam Dean: Blood Rights (1989), which was adapted for BBC television, The Late Candidate (1990), winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger Award, Point of Darkness (1994) and An Image to Die For (1995). The Dancing Face (1998) is a thriller centred on a priceless Benin mask. A Shadow of Myself (2000) is about a black documentary filmmaker working in Prague and a man who claims to be his brother. The Name You Once Gave Me (2006) was written as part of a government sponsored literacy campaign.

Mike Phillips also co-wrote Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain (1998) to accompany a BBC television series telling the story of the Caribbean migrant workers who settled in post-war Britain. London Crossings: A Biography of Black Britain (2001) is a series of interlinked essays and stories, a portrait of the city seen from locations as diverse as New York and Nairobi, London and Lodz, Washington and Warsaw. Recently he wrote a series of libretti for the compositions of musician Julian Joseph, culminating in a version of Tristan and Isolde, performed at the Royal Opera House.

Together with Romanian arts administrator and facilitator Ramona Mitrica, Phillips has worked over the last two decades to establish the cultural consultancy Profusion, which created the annual Romanian Film Festival in London. During that period he co-authored, with Stejarel Olaru, a history of the life and times of the notorious serial killer, entitled Rimaru - Butcher of Bucharest. In addition, as joint director, editor and translator, he worked on and helped to publish a series of Romanian works, including books by George Arion and Augustin Buzura. In 2019 he was awarded the Trofeul de Excelenta of the Augustin Buzura Cultural Foundation by Academician Professor Dr Jean-Jacques Askenasy, at a ceremony in the Military Circle in Bucharest.

Mike’s thriller The Dancing Face will be re-published by Penguin in 2021.

 

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The Dancing Face by Mike Phillips to be published by Penguin - 29 October 2020

The Dancing Face by MikePhillips

The Dancing Face 
by Mike Phillips to be published by Penguin


‘This book is brutal, deep, cunning and unbearably beautiful’ Independent

"Phillips offers an insight into Black Britain while raising issues of international interest in a fast moving thriller." Phillip Knightley, Mail on Sunday

 

The Dancing Face

A sensational, original thriller that examines the powerful link between identity, sacrifice and possession, and questions our compulsive need to chase after ambitions that leave devastation in their wake.

University lecturer Gus knows that stealing the priceless Benin mask, The Dancing Face, from a museum at the heart of the British establishment will gain an avalanche of attention. Which is exactly what he wants.

But such a risky theft will also inevitably capture the attention of characters with more money, more power, and fewer morals.

Naively entangling his loved ones in his increasingly dangerous pursuit of righteous reparation, is Gus prepared for what it will cost him?

Imprint: Penguin, Publication date: 04/02/2021, ISBN: 9780241482674, Length: 256 pages, RRP: £8.99

Pre-order from:
https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/320876/the-dancing-face/9780241482674.html

Mike Phillips on Facebook  •  @PenguinUKBooks #TheDancingFace
#DrMikePhillipsOBE #author #crimefiction

 

 

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Ramona Mitrica- interview with a foreign friend - about the place Romanian creativity occupies in the imagination of the artistic world (Part 3) - 23 September 2020

The Romanian version was published in CULTURA Magazine / nr. 615 / September 2020
https://revistacultura.ro/2020/despre-locul-pe-care-il-ocupa-creativitatea-romaneasca-in-imaginatia-lumii-artistice-iii/ 

CLICK HERE FOR FULL INTERVIEW (Part 1)
CLICK HERE FOR FULL INTERVIEW (Part 2)
More about Mike Phillips http://www.profusion.org.uk/topic/9-pikephillips.aspx

Ramona Mitrica: I want this interview to tell a story - a story about you MIKE PHILLIPS.

How has your experience of Romania and Romanian arts affected and influenced your views as a critic and an author? Tell me more about the place Romanian creativity occupies in the imagination of the artistic world.

 Mike Phillips: “We are an island of Latinity in a sea of Slavs.” The first time I heard this I was walking around the Military Museum in Bucharest, guided by a government official. We seemed to be the only visitors in the place, and the pictures and tableaux gave it a creepy, almost ghostly feel. This was more than twenty years ago, so my memory of the event is more of a dominant impression, but leaving the building felt like emerging from a dark tunnel into the light. On the other hand, this nationalistic version of identity had begun to intensify my curiosity about the place and its people. Don’t get me wrong. When I heard this for the first time, my reaction was amusement, followed by a species of sympathy. I had just walked past several tableaux representing one battlefield or another, a blood-soaked and agonizing history of wars and defensive slaughter. In the circumstances, some sort of nationalistic passion seemed to be the necessary source and the inevitable consequence.

At the same time, I had spent most of my life listening to crazy and distorted versions of history, designed to excite and exploit minor ethnic distinctions. My own history, the history of my family and friends was littered with a myriad of injustices, oppressions and cruelty. I understood too well the self defensive impulse behind the statement. But, in order to participate in the culture of my own world I had been obliged to put all that behind me. There was more to it than simply rejecting the ideology of nationalism.

The truth was that I didn’t think of myself as the product of a single unbroken line. In my ancestry and in my immediate family there were Africans, Europeans, Indians, and Chinese. My great grandmother’s father fled over the border from slavery in Brazil. My great grandmother’s mother arrived from Barbados in the household of a creole family. My grandmother’s sister moved to New York in 1923, and lived there until her death. If we belonged somewhere it was anywhere in the world that we chose, and my ideal world was one in which you were able to make those choices, irrespective of how and where you were born. In comparison I had little or no sympathy at all for a belief system where the traditional residence of someone’s ancestors in a specific place could serve as a guarantor of identity.

Yet, there was something disturbingly complacent about the Romanians’ assumption that everything they saw somehow belonged to them. It was a fine distinction. I thought of myself as “belonging” to London. Its streets and buildings were effortlessly familiar, assured by endless memories, but I never thought of them as “belonging” to me or mine. I suppose it’s all about the broad concept of “ownership”. In my cultural tradition the idea of “owning” things was morally corrupt, a notion which we fought, almost by instinct. Beyond that, the idea of “owning” a culture didn’t make sense, if only because “our” culture was assembled from wave after wave of varying, sometimes contradictory beliefs, all of which we had learnt to assimilate into our identity. By contrast, calling oneself an “island of Latinity in an ocean of Slavs” seemed less like a description of identity and more like an invitation to battle.

Variations of this thought were running through my mind during my first days in Bucharest, but I was also experiencing more and different impressions which stood in contrast to my first. For instance, another impression which sticks in the memory was my participation in a major book fair which took place at the National Theatre in the centre of Bucharest. A crowded, happy event, where I was greeted by a man, carrying a trumpet and wearing a headdress which looked like a cockerel. Bună ziua. Halfway through the day I stood at a window looking out onto a boulevard (Bulevardul Magheru) which was lined with bookstalls, and crowded with people, who were looking at the books, and even (to my surprise) buying them. My surprise was due to the fact that I had attended events like this in countries all over the world without ever seeing such enthusiasm. It was, I guessed, something to do with the country’s emergence from its recent dictatorship. Everyone I talked to seemed curious and interested. Who are you? Where do you come from? What made you come here?

We were going to the theatre festival in Sibiu. At this point the festival was five or six years old, and from what I’d heard it was the work of a small provincial theatre, in Transylvania. For me, this was an extremely exciting idea. Every Romanian I’d met so far had talked about their peasant roots, plants and flowers remembered from their childhoods on a farm, grandparents tending sheep and buffalo. A small town in Transylvania, I guessed, would bring me closer to the roots of their culture.

In hindsight, this was a ridiculous notion. As it happened, the festival was an extraordinary mixture of elements. I had been looking forward to encountering the soul of the country in Transylvania. Instead, I was encountering groups of writers and performers from all over the world, all of them, it seemed, inspired by images rather than words. For example, one of the plays I remember from those early years was a Japanese version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The performance took place in a nearby castle which we reached by climbing a winding stone staircase. We walked in long lines, and by the time I reached the top I was almost staggering, out of breath. The giant doors were open and, in the hall, we sat in rows, facing each other.

This was a special occasion. Festival director Constantin Chiriac had been lobbying the European Union for years and this year they had sent a representative, a small giggling Italian who was sitting opposite me, flanked by Chiriac and the mayor, Klaus Iohannis. We waited and waited. I didn’t feel as disturbed as I might have, if only because attending these grand performances had always been an adventure. A couple of years before this I had gone to see Rusalka in the Astra Park just outside Sibiu. It was cold and it rained. The audience sat in a crescent by the lakeside, shivering, covered in blankets. The cast was posed on a platform floating on the lake. As the performance progressed however, the waters began to rise, choking the sputtering principals as they slipped in and out of the rising waves. As for the chorus my heart went out to them because they were standing there for a couple of hours, singing against the driving sleet, obviously freezing and in agony. Eventually, they abandoned the performance, because the cast of the show was going through the worst of it. The audience was having a tough time as well, but I was fine. A friend had wrapped me in his leather jacket and kept on warming me up with shots of vodka, so I ended the evening slightly inebriated and shaking with laughter.

But Rusalka wasn’t the strangest adventure. Another time, another show. This was a show which took place in a college near the theatre. It was announced for half past eight, but when we got there we were told that the play wouldn’t start until midnight. At round about mid night we were admitted, but then we were kept standing in the hallway for another hour and a half. At the end of that time, we were told that fifty people could enter for the first half of the performance. We were seated on the stage until the interval, when we were allowed to disperse into the auditorium. By then I was half asleep, but I lasted until about half past three, when I left. Afterwards I heard that it had gone on until five.

All this sounds extreme, but it was what I came to half expect in Sibiu, so waiting for the Japanese Shakespeare to begin I possessed my soul in patience, and watched the Italian opposite me, while the crew began its preparations, closing the doors and arranging the set. Suddenly the doors banged open, and the Japanese cast began marching in, costumed, holding up their banners, and moving in rhythm. It was a beautiful performance, and although I had been bothered about following the plot, I needn’t have bothered. Everything was clear, and I went to bed that night feeling more or less satisfied about what I had seen. The shock didn’t come until the next morning. When I went down to breakfast, there was a strange atmosphere, men who looked like police in plain clothes were standing around, and police cars driving in the square. In the street I met someone I knew and they told me that the Italian had been found dead in his bed that morning. Later on that day I reminded Chiriac of the superstition surrounding the play in the English theatre. “This one’s the curse of Sibiu,” he said.

All of this however, was about a moment of change. At the beginning of the century I was looking at a celebration of old European literary and dramatic traditions – Chekov, Shakespeare, Goethe – all of it overlaid by spirited transitions of Latin poetry and drama – Ovid, Horace, et al. It was as if the theatre I had grown up with hardly existed. In fact, when I thought about theatre, I was thinking about the one where playwrights like Pinter prowled and growled, about social and political commentary, and about words, words, words. By contrast Chiriac’s theatre began and ended with the spectacle. In that context I was repeatedly struck by the local importance of directors when it came to delivering a specific vision. In the circumstances it was easy to read the influence of the puppet theatre with all its cultural and political intent. At another level there was something teasingly familiar about organisations where everything depended on the ruthless orders of one man.

This was a strand of thought that coloured most of my early experiences in Romania. Don’t forget I’m talking about twenty years ago. Chatting with Silviu Purcarete about his life in France I got the sense that there were distinct similarities between our different roles as artists living a conceptual exile. The differences, though, were crucial. On my first visit to the country I had been, in a way, sidetracked by Sibiu and Transylvania.

In another year I had learnt more and now I was preparing to be part of a translation team working on a book by George Arion. We met in the cellar of a café in Bucharest, where George was sitting holding court, like a Romanian version of Hemingway. By the time we left I was a fan of George’s and his hero Andrei Mladin. Something about his comic and satirical approach to his material was comfortable and familiar, and so was the energy of his urban narrative. He wrote about the way that people lived while including sly references to the dictatorship under which he had been writing – “the entire basement is filled with water. They brought a pump to clear it, but it will take another hour to replace the burst pipe. And during the repairs there is no water running in the bathrooms. Today of all days, when I wanted to do the laundry ---- Did they find anything in the basement? ---- Only rats. You should see them climbing on the walls and screeching like mad… I almost pity them. And there are several cats on the prowl, grabbing the ones who manage to get out.”

It wasn’t hard to work out that, like my American, English, and French compatriots, the imagery was one which aimed at describing the condition of his society. Here was an authentic modern voice, speaking in terms which linked him with the same world in which the rest of us lived. Another version of the culture I was beginning to know.


End of third installment

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Ramona Mitrica- interview with a foreign friend - about the place Romanian creativity occupies in the imagination of the artistic world (Part 2) - 07 August 2020

The Romanian version was published in CULTURA Magazine / nr. 614 / August 2020
https://revistacultura.ro/2020/despre-locul-pe-care-il-ocupa-creativitatea-romaneasca-in-imaginatia-lumii-artistice-ii/ 

CLICK HERE FOR FULL INTERVIEW (Part 1)

 I want this interview to tell a story - a story about you MIKE PHILLIPS.

How has your experience of Romania and Romanian arts affected and influenced your views as a critic and an author?

 By the time I visited Romania I had already established a career as travelling journalist, mostly in the Caribbean. My travels had actually started with a documentary TV series I made for the BBC, about the history of black life in Britain. One of the episodes took me to Kenya to interview some of the men who had fought for colonial independence, agitating in London and Paris.

After that experience I felt the world opening up in front of me, and looking back on those times, I remember climbing on and off planes in a state of eager impatience, desperate to fill my tape recorder and my notebooks with voices – Bob Marley in Jamaica, the crashing roar of waves on a beach in Barbados, Fidel in Cuba, standing in the dark until three in the morning, listening to his voice, hoarse, impassioned, lyrical. Afterwards we sat drinking mojitos with a couple of Russian reporters until the sun blazed over the horizon. I saw my first Romanians that day, beautiful in their red uniforms, waving and chanting in unison. 1978. 


Those memories are indelible, but the moments which excited me most, however, were unexpected, times which were strange and revealing. In Kingston, Jamaica, during a riot, I found myself with my friend and photographer, Neil, walking through a completely deserted part of the city, following the sound of drums. As the drums grew louder we came out of a side street, and there, sitting around a junction was a small crowd, about a dozen men, dressed in robes, all of them drumming steadily. This was Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, and I performed the interview immediately. I can’t remember what Ras Michael said in the interview, but the photographs were beautiful.

By the time I met Caramitru in Prague, however, every aspect of my travels had changed. I was no longer a newspaper hack, focused on finding a story. Instead, I was on the platform, talking about my work, or discussing our practice with other writers. This was a change which had a number of consequences for how I approached what I was doing. I had moved, from an interest in how the people I met lived and behaved, to a fascination with the systems which shaped and controlled their behaviour. In retrospect, up to that point, I had also accepted the lazy assumption that the different cultures I observed in various different regions were somehow innate, products of some kind of historical tribal identity. I think all this changed, in my own mind, when I was commissioned, by the BBC, to convert my first book into a TV series. I had written Blood Rights, like most first novels, as a way of discussing or describing my experience so far, and my identity offered the book a secure background to the story I was telling. Writing a script was different, if only because its visual elements made radically different demands on the imagination. Scriptwriting opened up a new and instructive opportunity to explore the relationships between individuals and their social setting. An important element, therefore, in my construction of the script, was the delivery of how my protagonist was shaped by his environment and how he, in his turn, shaped it. This was it, a base that produced a multitude of habits and responses, which, for want of better word, people called culture.

When I say this it makes the entire transition sound relatively simple and straightforward, but it wasn’t. In retrospect, I’m also talking about one of those periods in my life when I was beginning to feel drained and exhausted, and I was looking for some kind of direction. My developing interest in Eastern Europe offered me a new pathway.

I began this interview talking about the Anglophone culture I inhabited as a child, and about my transition into the life of a young migrant in London. As I progressed, becoming a student, and working through the various stages of a career, I had thought about the work of my lifetime as understanding and assimilating the culture of country in which I had grown up and where I lived. Ironically, however, while I was aware that this process would involve changes in my own persona, the extent to which my presence was changing the landscape around me came as more of a surprise. In life there are no oneway streets, but my encounter with Romania seemed to offer little or no opportunity for an exchange of experience. Part of the problem was the fact the country existed on the other side of the Cold War barriers. What I knew about the place was filtered through scraps of information about a few artists – Tristan Tzara, Brancusi, along with vaguely remembered clips of news reports about street demonstrations. I climbed on the plane half expecting it to be exactly like Prague or Warsaw.

Looking back, I can’t really remember much about my first visit. What remains is a kaleidoscope of images, dominated by the giant monument to aviators decorating the centre of Bucharest. Someone had met me at the airport, and driven me to a building, which I learned later on, had been a hangout of the late dictator’s son. Now it had become Uniter. Inside, the place had gloomy lighting, which revealed a decrepit glossiness, gleaming with tarnished surfaces. The woman who met me downstairs led the way up to a large room, half of which seemed to be a bar with a glass ceiling. When she left I sat down, struggling to record and examine my impressions. By this time I had heard a myriad of hints and half expressed sentiments about the dictatorship and its effects, all of which seemed to contribute to my dark and depressed mood. What was I doing here, I kept asking myself.  In a while I fell asleep and dreamt about a man in a black suit and a hat, watching me. I woke up with a start and saw the moon, big and relentlessly bright, shining through the glass ceiling. This was my first night in Bucharest. In the morning I woke up again, went downstairs and saw, to my relief, Caramitru, leaning against his parked car, dressed in jeans and a crisply ironed shirt, reading a newspaper. “We’re going to Sibiu,” he said.

Talking about this now, I just remembered that the night I described was not my first night in Bucharest, but it’s strangely appropriate that my memory skipped the three or four days I spent there. It’s appropriate because, when I think about the trip, my mind focusses on driving through the countryside, through long, silent, sunlit roads, past curious buildings, and stalls piled high with cherries, and looming mountain tops, blue and grey and green. The truth was that I had spent a few days wandering in the city, engaging in difficult half understood conversations with strangers. Some years before this I had crossed over into East Berlin a couple of days after the Wall came down, and I was familiar with a public atmosphere which has gradually changed over the years since then. A general atmosphere of shabbiness, punctuated by the grandiloquent declarations of buildings and streets. Guarded faces and swift suspicious stares as I went past. Angry dogs lurking. Everything has now changed radically, as I said, but at the end of those days I was glad to be leaving, and the beauty of the countryside was like an assault on the senses. I didn’t know where I was, but it didn’t matter.

That statement makes it sound as if I was confused about my location, but, of course, that wasn’t the case. By now I was accustomed to the sense of being a foreign observer, looking in on other people’s lives, trying to figure out who and what they were. This was a habit I had acquired earlier on when I first arrived in England, and it had been confirmed by my later experiences.

But, while this aspect of the relationship with my surroundings remained unchanged, one part of the equation had moved. This was my own identity. I was no longer the boy who walked off the boat into an English fog. Even the memories of my childhood were beginning to fade. This process had consequences. Over the years I had stopped thinking about myself as a transplant, a person from ‘somewhere else.’ Instead when I thought about ‘home’, it was in London. But not quite. I had been shaped and tailored, by my identification with the travails of colonial rebellion, by my experience of being a transplanted ‘outsider’, and by my understanding of nationality in the places to which I had travelled. I thought of myself as a “citizen of the world”, and to some extent I was bored by the passions of nationalism. On the other hand, I had begun to be struck by a different, more defensive, aspect of national identity in Eastern Europe. Speeding through the twilight towards Sibiu, I began to be seduced by the region’s complex interaction between its history and its origins.

End of second installment

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"Report on the State of Loneliness" is a concluding moment in Augustin Buzura’s great series of novels - 02 August 2020

"Report on the State of Loneliness"  - Augustin Buzura’

"Report on the State of Loneliness" - Augustin Buzura

"With my thoughts going to the war or any other absurdity of the times - since everything seemed possible and impossible at the same time - I felt the need to know life on each of its numerous levels. I wanted to take, with thirst and fury, as soon as possible, everything I was sure that, sooner or later, could be useful to me, as if I was able to assemble some reserves of love, beauty and peace.” (Augustin Buzura - Report on the State of Loneliness) 

“Cu gândul la război sau la orice altă absurditate a vremurilor, căci totul părea posibil și imposibil în același timp, simțeam nevoia să cunosc viața pe fiecare din numeroasele ei paliere, să iau cu sete și furie, cât mai repede, tot ce aveam certitudinea că, mai devreme sau mai târziu, mi-ar putea folosi, de parcă mi-aș fi putut face niște rezerve de dragoste, frumusețe și liniște.“ (Augustin Buzura – Raport asupra singurătății)


"Report on the State of Loneliness" is a concluding moment in Augustin Buzura’s great series of novels. The author enters the tenebrous and mysterious labyrinth of life in the most natural manner possible: slamming the secret door open to the wall.  

Translated from the Romanian by Ramona Mitrica, Mike Phillips and Mihai Risnoveanu
Available from Profusion Books, on Kindle and in paperback.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Report-State-Loneliness-Profusion-Gold-ebook/dp/B01LW32Q9T/ 
 

Book cover: Laura Lazăr and Mihai Risnoveanu
Photo: Laura Lazăr

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Ramona Mitrica- interview with a foreign friend - about the place Romanian creativity occupies in the imagination of the artistic world - 22 July 2020

 

Romanian version published here https://revistacultura.ro/pdf/Cultura_613_compressed.pdf (CULTURA Magazine, nr. 613, page 130; July 2020)
 
 
I want this interview to tell a story - a story about you Mike Phillips - and the story begins with who you are and how you came to be interested in Romania. What comes next is how those two things are connected - where is the connection? Finally how has your experience of Romania and Romanian arts, especially as it concerns the work of writers like Buzura, affected and influenced your views as a critic and an author. So let us begin.

 R. Who are you? How did you come to be interested in Romania?

 
I was born on the South American continent, in the republic of Guyana. At the time it was a British colony, British Guyana. My memories of my childhood are fragmented, incoherent, a kaleidoscope of impressions. On the other hand, I have a clear impression about the sort of culture which nurtured me, about the attitudes and beliefs of my family, and about our position within the world around me. 
 
We lived in a village which was an adjunct of the capital city, Georgetown. Nowadays it is a suburb of the capital, but in those days it had a distinct identity. Our population, like most of the country’s, was intricately mixed. In the 18th and 19th centuries Guyana had been a colony of African slaves, producing sugar for Europe. After slavery ended, the need for cheap labour had brought in poor Europeans, mainly Portuguese, followed by Chinese, then, towards the end of the 19th century, a flood of South Indian labourers and their families. 
 
We lived cheek by friendly jowl. Our neighbours were Chinese, Hindu, Muslim, Portuguese, and the occasional exotic Armenian (Charlie Kazatakan, who minded flocks of sheep in a nearby pasture.)
Every morning, at the age of six and seven, I walked, on my way to school, to the nearby Muslim orphanage and waited for my friend Ali.
 
The language we all spoke, our language, was English. Our English, however, was interspersed with words and phrases from various other languages, notably Urdu. On the other hand, it was the rules, the attitudes and the deep concepts of the English language which dictated our understanding and our instinctive grasp of how language itself was constructed.
 
The general point is that I grew up in a context where the meeting and the mixture of cultures was normal and inevitable. Equally inevitable was the fact that these cultural collisions took place within a framework of shared values. When, in later life, I began to encounter the mythologies and the belief systems of Eastern Europe, it was as if they belonged to a similarly universal structure, and were simply an unfamiliar way of arranging the same world. 
 
Of course, my understanding about the nature of cultures and their role in constructing identities, was, of course, not simple or direct. At the beginning of the fifties, my parents migrated to England, and I followed them some years later, which was the start of a very different cultural experience. 
 
At that point, it was the language and the use of specific language patterns which to a large extent, defined my identity – who I thought I was. I grew up steeped in the iconic English and European classics. By the time I arrived in England as a teenaged schoolboy, I was familiar with the work of Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, together with the usual assortment of poets, sculptors, painters and philosophers. Guyana had given me a conventional colonial education, which put me a couple of years ahead of the English classmates I was about to meet. At the same time I was haunted by a developing suspicion of what I knew and of what I was being taught. 
 
At first the source of this suspicion was concerned with my own background, and with the sense that my education, and therefore my grasp of the world, had somehow evaded any consideration of my own historical circumstances. 
 
Let me give you an example of how I began to understand certain cultural gradations in my world. I had grown up as a member of the community of black artists in Britain and I understood very well the exclusions we faced there. On the other hand, I had also grown up exposed to a view of culture which located Western Europe in the centre of the imagination, while exiling everything else to its periphery.
 
I remember giving a lecture in London, a short while after returning from a trip to Sibiu’s theatre festival. I talked about that experience and afterwards one of the participants approached me, and after a few remarks, she said, “I had no idea that Transylvania was a real place. I thought they’d made it up as a location for the Dracula movies.”
 
Having just returned from Transylvania, I was staggered. On the other hand, I was suddenly conscious that I had paid little attention to the history and significance of names I had heard, only half consciously, Brancusi, Eminescu, Buzura. At the same time, there was something else, a nagging memory from my first years in England, and of the exhaustion I’d felt at having to explain over and over again, that Guyana was a country in South America, not Africa, that it wasn’t to be confused with Ghana, and so on and so on and so on…..
 
One problem was the fact that my language, English, constituted a barrier which was difficult to surmount. In some ways this sounds illogical because belonging to the family of English speakers opened access to a broad variety of cultures around the world. But this was precisely the difficulty because this access was led and dominated by the academic and literary traditions of Western Europe and the United States. Given the exclusive nature of translated texts and visual artefacts, finding a pathway into other cultures, other ways of thinking, presented huge difficulties. Turn the situation around and imagine, for a moment, that your only access to the culture of English speakers was through classical books and artefacts – Shakespeare, Dickens, leavened by the odd international prizewinner. From that position, try grasping the origins and significance of new or revolutionary movements, like, for example, Dadaism. 
 
As it happened I had already begun my writing career in a self consciously rebellious mood. I had completed my degree in English literature, and then drifted, by various circuitous routes, into journalism. I had started to make my living from the practice of writing, but I was more and more conscious that even my favourite authors had little or nothing to say about me, or the circumstances in which I lived. No one had written about growing up as a black teenager in London, or about the clash of values and cultures I had experienced. I wrote my first novel as a way of filling in the gaps, in my picture of the literary world, and I was genuinely surprised when it was published. Nowadays I read that it was ‘groundbreaking’, but Blood Rights was actually a reflection of one strand of my reading, the authors I read for pure pleasure – Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Eric Ambler. To me, their stories seemed to exemplify a method of exploring and describing hidden and neglected roles in a society which was violent, oppressive and hypocritical. This was the world I knew, a prison which had locked me inside a role other people had invented, but this was also the world that gave me the context in which I could explore my identity as a writer. It had been the cinema, however, which had offered me an escape, and a new source of knowledge. As a child growing up in North London, there was something magical about leaving a grimy street in Hackney or Islington, and being transported to Rome or Paris or Berlin. For a few hours I was Fellini, I was Marcello Mastroianni, I was free, but another issue was the fact that this new cultural arena also had its limits.
 
I was also a child of the anti colonial struggle, which had defined my understanding of politics. One of my earliest memories was about standing by the side of the main street in our village and watching the lorry loads of white soldiers who had come to dissolve our government and jail our politicians. There was a direct link between such experiences and the cinematic fantasies of the great Polish director, Andrzej Wajda. I first saw Ashes and Diamonds almost sixty years ago, but I still have vivid memories of being the boy in dark glasses, choking to death with a gun in my hand, fighting for freedom.
 
Of course I had no idea about what all that meant, apart from the fact that here was yet another part of the world to which my access was forbidden. By the final decade of the last century, however, many things had changed. Thanks to the series of crime fiction novels which followed Blood Rights I received a grant from the Arts Foundation to work on my next novel. By then I was desperate to do something different, and I set out to achieve a novel based the experiences of a former African student in Eastern Europe. I began work on A Shadow of Myself by visiting Prague, then Moscow and Warsaw, travelling, notebook and tape recorder in hand, listening carefully, looking for stories which would put flesh on the vague impressions that impelled my interest.
 
At the time I knew nothing about Romania, apart from what I’d read in history books, and my first meeting with a Romanian happened after a conference about literature and culture in Prague. It was my third visit to the city, and as a “popular” English writer, I was a guest of the British embassy. During the first evening I was standing in the bar sampling a glass of Polish vodka when a man came up beside me and, without preamble, asked me who I was and what I was doing there. I didn’t know who he was but he had a raffish, slightly swaggering air which set me at my ease. He spoke English fluently, and he said he was an actor. Hearing his voice made me think of the cinema of my youth – Marcello, Alain Delon, Belmondo. Leaning against the bar I found myself telling him about the Ghanaian politician whose experiences in Moscow had set off my interest in the book I was writing, and he listened to my stories about travelling in Russia with a flattering interest. I had assumed, at first, that he was, like myself, a mere fellow labourer in the arts industry, but as the evening wore on various people kept on interrupting us, and it gradually dawned on me that he was someone much more important.
 
“Come to Romania,” he said eventually. 
 
The British Council organiser, slightly less inebriated than I was, drove me back to my hotel, and I took the opportunity to ask – “who was that guy?”
 
“Caramitru,” she said. “Minister of Culture in Romania. Very important in their revolution.”
 
“He said I should go to Romania.”
 
She looked round as if she was seeing me for the first time.
 
“You should go,” she said. “I’ll arrange it.”
 
This was how my Romanian adventure began.
 
 
 End of first instalment


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Dr Mike Phillips OBE FRSL, FRSA
 
Mike Phillips was educated at the University of London (English), the University of Essex (politics), and at Goldsmiths College London (education). He worked for the BBC as a journalist and broadcaster between 1972 and 1983 before becoming a lecturer in media studies at the University of Westminster. After a spell as Resident writer at the South Bank Centre in London, he was appointed Cross Cultural Curator at the Tate Galleries in Britain, and then worked as Acting Director of Arts (Cultuurmakelaar) in Tilburg in the Netherlands. Later on, he lectured in Milan and worked as a freelance curator in London, Belgium, Venice, the Netherlands and Los Angeles, notably with the Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen.
 
He was awarded the Arts Foundation Fellowship in 1996 for crime fiction, and the OBE in 2006 for services to broadcasting. He served as a Trustee of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, but he is best known for his crime fiction, including four novels featuring black journalist Sam Dean: Blood Rights (1989), which was adapted for BBC television, The Late Candidate (1990), winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger Award, Point of Darkness (1994) and An Image to Die For (1995). The Dancing Face (1998) is a thriller centred on a priceless Benin mask. A Shadow of Myself (2000) is about a black documentary filmmaker working in Prague and a man who claims to be his brother. The Name You Once Gave Me (2006) was written as part of a government sponsored literacy campaign.
 
Mike Phillips also co-wrote Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain (1998) to accompany a BBC television series telling the story of the Caribbean migrant workers who settled in post-war Britain. London Crossings: A Biography of Black Britain (2001) is a series of interlinked essays and stories, a portrait of the city seen from locations as diverse as New York and Nairobi, London and Lodz, Washington and Warsaw. Recently he wrote a series of libretti for the compositions of musician Julian Joseph, culminating in a version of Tristan and Isolde, performed at the Royal Opera House.
 
Together with Romanian arts administrator and facilitator Ramona Mitrica, Phillips has worked over the last two decades to establish the cultural consultancy Profusion, which created the annual Romanian Film Festival in London. During that period he co-authored, with Stejarel Olaru, a history of the life and times of the notorious serial killer, entitled Rimaru - Butcher of Bucharest. In addition, as joint director, editor and translator, he worked on and helped to publish a series of Romanian works, including books by George Arion and Augustin Buzura. In 2019 he was awarded the Trofeul de Excelenta of the Augustin Buzura Cultural Foundation by Academician Professor Dr Jean-Jacques Askenasy, at a ceremony in the Military Circle in Bucharest.

 

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The 15th Romanian Film Festival in London April 2019 - 03 November 2018

 

Tags: film, festival, 2019
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