Friday, 27 June 2014

Princip's Footprints

The Museum of the Austro-Hungarian Period: Sarajevo 1878-1918 had only opened a few years before. Housed, appropriately enough, in an Austro-Hungarian building on the north bank of the Miljacka river, it faced onto Obala Kulina Bana street and the Latin Bridge. It was here that Gavrilo Princip had fired the shots which killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia. For many years, there had been a pair of footprints cast in a paving slab which marked the exact spot where the Serbian assassin stood on the morning of 28 June 1914. These disappeared in 1992. Shelled, sniped at and nearly starved out by Serbs, the Sarajevans changed their minds about Princip. Before, when every Sarajevan was also a Yugoslavian, the gawky student from Belgrade had seemed, if not a hero, then at least a foolhardy patriot. He had struck a blow for independence from the Austro-Hungarians and set in train the series of events which led to both the demise of the Empire and the unification of the southern Slavs in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. During the siege, however, the Sarajevans had come to regard Princip as just another Serbian ultra-nationalist, much like the ones firing on them from the hills and imprisoning them in their own city. Circumstances transformed the assassin. While communist historians had co-opted him as an anti-imperialist and a pre-revolutionary revolutionary, many Sarajevans now bracketed him with Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic. Some also pointed out that, even if the assassination had been motivated by a desire for freedom and independence, it had also been the catalyst for the First World War. Restoring the commemorative footprints might reignite the suspicions of those who believed the Balkans to be a ‘powder keg’, a danger to the rest of Europe, a chaos whose conflicts would inevitably spread. In 2009, the only problem with not reinstating the footprints was that Sarajevo was no longer a city under siege in a civil war. It was the capital of a country which incorporated the Republika Srpska where thousands of Bosnian Serbs continued to regard Princip as a hero.

            The museum took a diplomatic line. Outside, a stone in the wall carried an impeccably factual inscription: ‘From this place on 28 June 1914 Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia.’ A screen beside it showed a clip from a TV dramatisation, an English one, with Edward Fox as the ill-fated archduke. Inside, the exhibits attempted to tell the story of Austro-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 without offending anyone. There was no mention of the chronic economic decay which afflicted the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth century. Nor was there anything to suggest that the Austro-Hungarians had annexed Bosnia out of self-interest, expanding the buffer zone which, like a prototype of the Iron Curtain, ran from Hungary to the Adriatic and protected them from the purportedly dangerous East. Instead there were bursts of information about the complex administrative structure and technological advances the Austro-Hungarians had introduced. A caption admitted that trams and electric street lighting arrived in Sarajevo much earlier than in the rest of the Habsburg domains because the authorities wanted to test them on the dispensable Bosnians before they exposed the good citizens of Vienna and Budapest to such potentially dangerous innovations. Beneath grainy black-and-white photographs of the Serbian conspirators was the gun which Princip had used to shoot the archduke: the starting pistol of the First World War. Three other guns used by the gang had ended up in Vienna; this, presumably, was the fourth and ‘missing’ weapon. Beside it was the paving slab with the concrete footprints, as much a relic of the siege as a memorial to the assassin.
Tom Phillips

Ghost Structures

Climbing through densities of mist
around hairpins that seem to sling us out
at nothing, we're to be counted, checked
at this former frontline border post.

Ghost structures, like scratched marks
on thick paper, are watchtowers,
military installations stripped
of wiring, glass, recycled as momento mori.

Where troop movements occupied observers,
customs officers make desultory searches,
complain about paperwork deficiencies,
inclemencies of closing-in weather.

Despite government's stated aspirations,
talk of accession has got no further
than these mirroring symbols,
fenced-off strips of no man's land
caught between flagged territories.

Tom Phillips

Friday, 6 June 2014

New post at Colourful Star: Apples

" ...All I would do to take you there –
to those orchards beside our lane,
their close fruit-heavy ranks ..."
It's time for this week's new post on Colourful Star - and this week it's all about apples ...

Friday, 23 May 2014

Colourful Star: Bilingual Post

Как да пиша, но с букви
от една древна азбука,
със звуци от сърцето?

24 May is both St Cyril and Methodius' Day and Bulgaria's national day of Education, Culture and Slavonic Literature - so for this week's post for the Anglo-Bulgarian collaborative project Colourful Star, we've combined Marina Shiderova's calligraphy designs with my first (public) effort at writing in Bulgarian ... (there is also an English translation). You can link to our first fully bilingual post here.

Monday, 28 April 2014


The launch issue of the all-new Shakespeare Magazine includes my piece on Shakespeare and Bristol, while there's a poem and paintings on 'Twelfth Night' at Colourful Star here.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Lovers in winter

When I picture it now, of course,
I can only picture it in the wrong season:
summer light on shop windows,
dusty pavements, the market’s
mosaic of fruit and veg,
gardens’ modest luxuries.

Not so hard to imagine you, though,
arm in arm on a familiar plaza –
or rummaging bookstalls,
drinking coffee, running for buses.
You’ll be laughing or breathless –
or both. On the bridge where
dual carriageway headlights
flash an eerie glamour,
it’ll be as if past differences
were nothing more than blank spaces
on a map of the constellations.

Tom Phillips 2014

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Paintings and poem for Flower Day

There's new work at Colourful Star this week - writing and painting to mark Bulgaria's Flower Day (Sun 13 Apr). You can click through to it here.

Flower Day - which always falls on Palm Sunday - is one of Bulgaria's 'name days', but while most such days are associated with particular saints or historical events, this one is for all those whose names derive from flowers. Traditionally, name day celebrations involve keeping open house, preparing food and drink for the friends and relatives who call round to wish you well. A bit like a birthday, a name day is a sort of personal holiday - but unlike a birthday, guests can turn up uninvited.

About Colourful Star
Colourful Star began with a conversation around a kitchen table in Sofia. Sisters Marina and Vasilena Shiderovi decided they wanted to start an online project which would combine Marina’s paintings with short articles, stories and other texts. Having met Bristol-based writer Tom Phillips by chance, they asked him if he’d like to get involved, and the three set about discussing how an Anglo-Bulgarian art-and-writing collaboration might work. By early 2014, Marina had designed the logo and the webpage, Colourful Star was ready and the project was launched online on 23 January. New collaborations are now published every Friday, with additional postings to mark occasions such as Baba Marta, International Women’s Day/Mother’s Day, Easter and so on.

As well as simply bringing together visual art with poetry and prose, Colourful Star is about exploring and celebrating the possibilities of collaboration between artists and writers living in different parts of Europe. Texts and paintings are created in response to each other, or – as in the case of the post for Baba Marta (1 March 2014) – in response to a common idea or occasion. Although there is no overall theme, one strand which has begun to emerge is work reflecting on the similarities and differences between Bulgarian and British traditions.

Image: Marina Shiderova