Letter from Struga: The Golden Wreath of Macedonia

MY FRIENDS think I am crazy to go to any part of what used to be Yugoslavia, even though Macedonia has been peaceful so far. But I have been invited to the Struga Poetry Evenings, have recently had an anthology published (Contemporary Macedonian Poetry, Forest Books, pounds 9.95), and am curious to see what effect the tragic events farther north are having on that idyllic corner.

Getting there is the first problem. There are now four, equally complicated routes: 1) via Ljubljana to Skopje and thence three hours by bus; 2) via Sofia, thence seven hours by bus to Skopje and another three to Struga; 3) via Germany, thence by the new Macedonian airline to Skopje, and on again by bus; or 4) via Berlin to Salonika and thence, if you can overcome the active non- cooperation of the local Greek officials, into Macedonia. I decide on the third variant.

The organisers are a little cagey when asked about this year's participation. There is no one from America and no English-speaking Canadians, though there are two poets from Quebec and three Macedonian Canadians. Rather astonishingly, there are five poets from Luxembourg.

But the hotel is full and the organisers bravely - almost touchingly - follow the long-established routine. On their own initiative the other two British representatives, Brian Patten and Roger McGough, put on a 'performance poetry party'. It is very well attended and, though I think their rapid Northern accents are not quite what the audience expected, it goes down very well.

We are all taken by bus to Ohrid, a delightful old town on the lake. The handful of foreign participants who speak Macedonian (I am one of them, though only just) are lionised by the media. My tenses may be faulty, but I am quite proud of my nimble diplomatic footwork when pressed on political issues. I am complimented on my efforts in Macedonian, but can't help being reminded of Dr Johnson's remark about the performing dog.

The first of the festival's two highlights is the ceremonial presentation of this year's Golden Wreath to the winner, the Hungarian poet Ferenc Juhacz, in the ancient Saint Sophia Cathedral in Ohrid. Many years ago, W H Auden won this coveted prize; last year it was Joseph Brodsky. A splendid ritual, but everyone would have been happier if the temperature in the packed church had been 10 degrees lower.

The following evening sees the culmination of the festival: the public readings from a platform specially erected on the bridge over the river Drim. Packed along both banks, as far as the eye can see, are thousands of local people, and at least a quarter of a million watch this annual event on television.

About 30 of us are lined up on the platform (fewer than in past years). We each read a poem in our own language, and a translation is then read by local actors and actresses in Macedonian. It's all very different from reading to a couple of dozen people at the Poetry Society.

The Struga Poetry Evenings are without doubt the worst organised event of its kind - really more a string of improvisations - but equally they are the most enjoyable. But I am curious to see how much has changed in Macedonia since it proclaimed its independence earlier this year. There is a romantic nationalist euphoria reflected, or perhaps fanned - by the media. Many people are irritated by the European Community's yielding to Greek objections to the name of Macedonia. Intemperate appeals to the UN speak of 'diplomatic genocide'. When a German speaker at a Macedonian translators conference (which I attended after Struga) tried to say that he considered the sooner- die-than-change-our-name attitude to be a mistake, he was wrongly translated as having spoken in its favour and warmly applauded. When the mistake was pointed out there was an embarrassed silence and one lady got up to 'take back' her applause.

These are not inflamed mobs, but university professors. But I too think that there is a dangerous lack of realism in this euphoria. Few Macedonians will admit that they benefited from the old Yugoslav federation, when money from the prosperous republics (mainly Slovenia) was pumped to the poorer republics (mainly Macedonia). The fine tourist hotels and facilities were all built with federal money. Yet a Greater Macedonia, as far south as Salonika, may be a fairly widely shared dream. I don't think the dream is particularly dangerous - it is the awakening that scares me.

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living