Profusion Publishers - Independent British Publishing House, based in London

Blog posts of '2020' 'July'

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 (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

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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