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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)

The Romanian version of this interview was published in CULTURA Magazine / nr. 617 / November 2020

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


More about Mike Phillips

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.