Fake News & Little Fictions

2016 was a momentous year.  A watershed.

History may look back on it as the point where we all woke up to the power of social media as propaganda, or the point where the role of good journalism in digging out important stories, establishing the truth and educating the world to that truth became irrelevant.

In the UK for example we had the spectacle of the “leave” campaigners touring in a bus emblazoned with a claim that was blatantly wrong, deliberately misleading, and of course undelivered in the period following the vote.  Our media failed to express sufficient outrage (partly due to the vested interests they represent) and experts who demonstrated the “truth” were dismissed as irrelevant and unreliable.  Opinion was more important than reality.

I’m not close enough to the American political system to comment in detail about Trump’s rise to power, but it seems that something similar happened.  Regardless of which group he demonised, insulted or ignored, the electorate seemed ready to ignore that in favour of promises and dreams with no underpinning detail about how they would be delivered.

Is the world so full of woe that we find fantasy a more palatable alternative.  Has this become Marx’s opiate of the people?  Perhaps the global response to Game of Thrones was a clue.

Last year I went to Croatia for a marriage ceremony.  Or rather I didn’t.  Over the summer a number of events in Jane’s life brought sufficient pressures that we cancelled our civil ceremony in this country.  We had planned to follow that with a symbolic event in Croatia with close friends in attendance, and so rather than cancel everyone’s summer holiday we went ahead with this event that was intended to symbolise our relationship.

We had a great location, local musicians, fantastic weather, and lots to eat and drink.  What we didn’t have was a marriage and perhaps with that knowledge the pressures that had been building before the event took their toll, and in the weeks after our return, even our friendship cooled, sputtered and eventually ended.  (Jane did agree to my posting this)


What has that to do with fake news?

In the midst of all of this, one of my daughters posted her pictures from the Croatia trip to Facebook.  One of which showed Jane & I in character as bride & groom.

Twelve months later and people still ask how married life is treating me.  The power of a single Facebook posting supplanted the reality.  I wonder how many times that has happened in the more important events that have, and continue to take the world by surprise?  Are we just so lazy that a photograph or an internet meme becomes sufficient evidence upon which to base important decisions?  Do we accept what we see with our eyes instead of engaging our brains?

Imagery is powerful and it was Facebook’s reaction to an image that saw me suspend my profile there, when they blocked a post by the Norwegian Prime Minister that incorporated the famous “Napalm Girl” image.  Mr Zuckerman’s people simply saw child nudity.  If the original publishers of that image had also taken such a superficial view then one of the most influential images of the Vietnam conflict would never have seen the light of day.

Perhaps it stems from our leadership.

Maybe the day will come when Trump explores the facts before he reacts it will serve as an example to the world.  I’m not holding my breath.



Thanks to Dani McLachlan who was the Sorcerer’s Apprentice capturing some of these shots on the day.  She even made me look ok!

All Things Ecclesiastical

As you will see next month, in my final Croatian posting, I wasn’t in the Dubrovnik area with my usual determination to unearth interesting nuggets of history or design. Many of my other city trips have been aided by a GPS app on my phone which enables me to record where the images were taken, and sometimes it even works!  That wasn’t the case in Dubrovnik because I wasn’t here for the buildings at all, and so whilst my reflex response to a baroque painting or architectural feature was still to record it, my brain wasn’t so disciplined in recalling where I was at the time.

Consequently I have images shot in a number of churches in Dubrovnik old town but can’t be certain which is which. I can look at them chronologically and therefore have some idea of where I might have been at the time, but the old town is so compact that that is far from infallible so please bear with me.

Let’s start with a disappointment and an example of my lack of preparation.

If, as most visitors do, you enter through the Pile Gate, you’ll pass Onofrio’s fountain on your right as you make for Stradun, the main street.  Dominating that space on your left is the Franciscan monastery, whose campanile is one of the tallest structures here.  Naturally I went straight into the church but found it lacked impact or imagination.  There are some second-rate mouldings, a positively funereal colour scheme, and a dominating pulpit emerging from the walls.

Between these features stretches of plain plaster and velvet drapes were more akin to someone’s living room so I wasn’t in a hurry to linger.  My mistake, because elsewhere in the complex is a pharmacy.  A pharmacy that has been operating for 700 years.  The oldest in Europe.  I didn’t see it.

And now things get messy.  You might think that given the saint’s importance that the church of St Blaise would be Dubrovnik’s cathedral, but 100m along the same street is another great church and this is the Cathedral of the Assumption.  Their proximity and the multiple entrances mean that I can’t be sure where I was when capturing images of the interiors.

Externally there is no doubt for though they are both domed buildings made from the same coloured stone the large golden statue of the town’s patron is easily spotted.

And it would be easy to think that those are major sites, but there are other monastic compounds and if you opt to walk the walls one more great church becomes apparent, high above the central area.  This is St Ignatius, the great baroque church built by the Jesuits and completed in the 18th century (though bizarrely it houses the oldest bell in the city which was cast over 350 years earlier).

The Italian influence is apparent in the reliquary statue, grotto, rosaries and frescoes that decorate the interior, the latter being a particularly obvious demonstration of the power and wealth of the church, though it’s the approach that underlines this.

Spanish Steps anyone?


Pirating History

Walking down Stradun, the main street of Dubrovnik, it’s easy to picture it as a pirate haven with rum-soaked marauders staggering from the many alleys supported by exotic wenches out to part the buccaneers from their doubloons and pieces of eight.  The image owes much to the climate and the pale stone of all the buildings which echoes the Spanish Colonial look of parts of the Caribbean.

Not content with milking their connection to Game of Thrones and Star Wars, the savvy traders of Dubrovnik are keen to maximise any profits that Johnny Depp may bring their way too.  One swarthy individual dressed very tenuously in a piratical style (loose-fitting white shirt open to the waist, medallion, leather trousers) has a small collection of parrots for tourists to photographed supporting, and there are at least two confectionary outlets that play on the theme by displaying their wares on top of replica barrels.

I wasn’t convinced.

There was another opportunity to partake of a bit of the freebooter experience.  Sea wolves with sea legs can board one of two galleons that sail the waters around the three main tourist islands of the area.

So is there any truth behind these commercial operations?

Well yes, some… but mostly no.

The Croatian coastline with its hundreds of islands provides the perfect context in which pirates could operate with innumerable hiding places in the bays and caves that the islands and cliffs provide.  The few miles of similar topography where I used to live supported a smuggling operation, so with a coastline that stretches for well over 2000 miles of course pirates operated here.  The fact is that at different times in history there were three different pirate groups operating here.

The first group to menace these waters were the Narentines, a Serbian tribal group whose name derives from the Neretva river, the largest on this side of the Adriatic and a natural thoroughfare for raiding parties, much like the fjords to the Norse.  They attacked Venetian traders in the 9th and 10th centuries until their eventual defeat by Doge Pietro II, a victory that has been celebrated ever since in the ceremony where Venice “marries” the sea each year.  (Can’t believe I didn’t include that festival amongst all of my Venetian posts.)

Enter the corsairs of Omis, albeit two centuries later.  As their name suggests they originated from Omis, 200km further up the coast from Dubrovnik.  Described by the local tourist board as “one of the most powerful and fearsome” pirate groups of the entire Mediterranean.  Well they would wouldn’t they?  They did have some chutzpah, not content with emulating the Narentines and helping themselves to Venetian cargoes they also harried the Pope’s crusaders en route to Palestine.  The Pope declared ware on them.  And lost.  Once again it took concerted Venetian naval might to end the Omis era in 1331.

Neither of these groups sailed in galleons – this was still the era of warships powered by rowers in the Mediterranean.  So what about the final group, the evocatively named Uskoks, a word meaning “those who ambushed”?  Also operating from rowed boats these were groups of soldiers who turned to piracy as a means of survival.  In contrast to their predecessors their targets were Ottoman rather than Venetian, so much so that their actions helped to trigger a war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century.  In fact they allied themselves with the Papal fleet that crushed the Ottomans at the Battle of Lepanto.  Seeing themselves more as holy warriors they were disbanded as part of a peace treaty between Venice and Austria in 17th Century.

So no galleons.  No rum.  No parrots.  But pirates aplenty.

Glorious Food?

In the last year I’ve delivered a lot of training on the subject of the forces that drive change and how organisations respond to those forces. One of the examples that seemed to emerge regularly from those discussions was the way in which the UK has become more of a “foodie” nation. We talked about what might have influenced that (TV chefs, foreign travel, availability of ingredients, immigration) and the way in which some businesses have thrived or changed as a result (Waitrose, Marks & Spencer).

Much of that has been as a result of Italian influence; the writing of Anna Del Conte, restaurateurs like Carluccio, Contaldo and Locatelli, and the passion for Italian food shown by TV chefs like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson.  So might the Dalmation coast of Croatia, as a former territory of the Venetians, have a great food culture?

There are enough influences to suggest that there might be.  Apart from the Italians, Turks and Hungarians have occupied these shores, though of course that doesn’t guarantee culinary success; our own Norman invasion and decades of links to Northern France didn’t seem to inspire a great tradition in England!

At this point I should caveat what is to follow; I’m in no position to genuinely critique the regional gastronomy.  I spent only 10 days in the area (and yes I know it only took me half that time to be certain of the quality found in Bologna), and aside from a couple of ventures into Dubrovnik was confined to the island of Lopud where I stayed in a large and modern hotel complex, eating  both there and in some of the small restaurants around the bay.

The hotel pizzeria was reliable and with a large group of us that included teenagers that was no bad thing, but it’s hardly revelatory.  The other food in the hotel was often disappointingly adequate, with one exception.  That served at the wedding banquet was tasty and showed some signs of an attempt at presentation, but it didn’t generate enough enthusiasm to rate a recommendation.

This daughter survived!
This daughter survived!

In Dubrovnik there are plenty of choices that aspire to style and flair, though I only ate at one, where I had a delicious lunch incorporating something akin to a tuna burger.  As did one of my two daughters.  We were both ill later, though to be fair that could be coincidence.

We also experienced some horrible pasta and salads back on Lopud.  I’d read that the island was once predominantly used for herding sheep yet there were no delicious lamb dishes here because they’ve all gone.   Why?

I suspect the answer to all of this disappointment goes back to the nation’s history of communist rule and war.  The former would have discouraged the development of quality food, the latter would have rendered it financially difficult.  I’ve experienced something similar before.

Fear not though.  Dalmatia has a secret weapon.  All that coastline guarantees one thing; the freshness of the fish and when simply grilled and served with local vegetables it can be truly delicious and generous in its servings.  There’s something to be said for sticking to the knitting.

There’s another thing to be said for a place serving fresh fish.  They often have a great sea view.





Tower and thick walls are no defence
Tower and thick walls are no defence

One of the attractions of Dubrovnik (and doubtless one that I’ll return to) is the opportunity to ascend the muscular defensive walls that encircle the city and walk the perimeter of the medieval settlement.

Once you complete the climb you’re presented with a new perspective of the old town, one where you can pick out all of the major structures, because however tall they may be, the walls are taller.

One of the first thing’s you’ll notice are the tiled rooftops.  Row upon row of terracotta, occasionally interspersed with a dot or two of ochre, though lacking the character of a Siena due to one simple fact.  All of this terracotta is new and devoid of any weathering or invasive lichens and mosses that might give it an interesting patina.  The rarer yellow patches are more authentic.

There’s no need to wonder why there has been so much rooftop renovation, for as you enter the city there are large sheet metal maps that chart the destination of every piece of ordnance that fell on the city during the war for independence that began in 1991.

The maps are quite shocking, but the rooftops have even greater impact in explaining the scale of the bombardment suffered here.  But why?

The Old Town was home to no significant military installations and the port is too small to have played any part in Croatia’s defence against the Yugoslav National Army or JNA (a strongly pro-Serbian force).  This was no militarily strategic attack; it was psychological warfare.  Dubrovnik is a medieval gem that brings a great deal of tourist income to the region, but it also plays a key role in the historic identity of the area, the home of the Ragusa maritime republic.  These historic buildings were irreplaceable and so their destruction was a way of erasing the historic identity of the Croats – a severe blow to their morale._pw_6461

Or it would have been had the Serbs been successful in their aims.  Instead both the Croatian people and these celebrated stones proved more resilient than expected and the savagery of the Serbs proved to be their undoing.  The attack on Dubrovnik raised the profile of the war, and was added to a list of war crimes attributed to the Serbs.  The PR disaster accelerated the international recognition of Croatia as an independent state.

During the World War II many Serbians had died in Croatian concentration camps, so the international response to the attacks seemed hypocritical to the Serbian leadership.  Before they withdrew, the JNA looted the city._pw_5284

Seven Baroque palaces were completely lost as a result of the siege.  Croatia and the world are fortunate that so much more survived, though I suspect the conflicts are only in temporary abeyance.  Neither side accepts the present boundaries so the opportunity for further confrontation remains. _pw_5285

The uppermost stained glass in St Blaise’s church is modern, the original another casualty no doubt.  I couldn’t help but feel that incorporating a white dove of peace was just a little optimistic.



Maritime Powers

_pw_6011During the Rio Olympics I was in a Croatian bar with the ubiquitous TV showing live sport, though as the games were in progress it wasn’t showing football.  The event in question was sailing, and though I understood neither the captions nor the commentary, all I could see was the GB had a competitor vying for a medal.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries Great Britain was a world superpower based on one particular asset.  The size of her navy.  Only the Dutch rivalled us a master of the world’s seas.  As an island nation that’s not too surprising; we had relied on seafaring skills for food supplies, defence, trade and transport throughout our history and were at that stage building an empire with our navy at its heart that would transform the wealth of the nation.  (Damn those Wright brothers!)_pw_5072

Although I lived in a town with its own yacht club for many years, I never really developed much knowledge of sailing beyond being able to identify a laser class vessel by the insignia on its sail.  Consequently I had no idea whether the men in the British boat (470 class) were likely world beaters or not.  As it happened they were not and finished in 5th place (though we did top the medal table for sailing overall).  Instead the gold medal went to Šime Fantela and Igor Marenić, the Croatian entrants.  No wonder it was being given such prominence in the bar.

I shouldn’t have been surprised at their success however, for Croatia has its own maritime history.


Ragusa Insignia, Customs House Door, Sponza Palace, Dubrovnik
Ragusa Insignia, Customs House Door, Sponza Palace, Dubrovnik

Prior to the exploits of Columbus, the Mediterranean was the most important body of water to Europeans and a succession of Maritime Republics held sway, of which Venice was one of the most important and enduring, but Amalfi, Pisa, Columbus’ home Genoa and more also established themselves as city-states whose power was derived from the sea.  And then there was Ragusa, though now we know it as Dubrovnik.

Of course the region produced natural sailors; modern Croatia may be small but its coastline is the most indented in the Mediterranean and runs to over a thousand miles in length.  Then add in over 1200 islands and you have over 2500 miles of coastline; being sailors was inevitable.  If you live on one of those islands (only 45 or so are populated) the boat is more important than any other vehicle, and so just like Venice, they put them to good use; one morning on the ferry to Dubrovnik we  were delayed in Koločep by a group of men who climbed aboard to unload a pallet of roofing tiles.  No cranes or derricks here, the whole job was completed in a matter of minutes by human chain.

Dubrovnik’s arsenal may not have had the size or significance of its Venetian counterpart (and now it’s a swanky restaurant) but this walled city held its own for 450 years until Napoleon intervened.  I think they deserved that gold medal.




What the Blaises?

How is your throat today?  A little sore?  Or maybe you’ve some wool that needs unravelling?  More seriously perhaps you’re at risk of imminent invasion?
English: Flag of the Republic of Dubrovnik.
English: Flag of the Republic of Dubrovnik. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Who you gonna call?

Perhaps a man who was martyred early in the 4th Century?

_pw_5094St Blaise, St Blazey, San Biagio, St Blasius, San Blas; his reputation spread throughout the Christian world, so what made him so influential?  (In Croatia he is Sveti Vlaho.)

The former physician turned bishop miraculously cured a child who was choking on a fishbone (thus becoming the patron saint of throat problems).  His execution consisted of being beaten with a stick, having his flesh ripped off with iron combs (hence the patron saint of wool combers) before he was beheaded.  That death at the hands of the Romans was by virtue of his religion rather than as a result of any significant political act.

On route to Sebastea for his execution he reputedly intervened when meeting an old woman whose pig had been snatched by a wolf, Blaise somehow persuading the wolf to release the pig to the woman.  To repay this act she apparently brought two candles to light his cell as he awaited his end._pw_6220

His remains rest in the Italian town of Maratea’s basilica, or at least some of them do.  Parts of him are also to be found in Dubrovnik, where he finally seems to have done something of note.  Over 600 years after his death in Turkey, he appeared in a vision to a priest of St Stephen’s cathedral in the Croatian city, to warn of an attack by the duplicitous Venetians whose fleet had anchored nearby, ostensibly to refresh their water supplies, but according to Blaise, to assess Dubrovnik’s defences.  Why this long-dead Armenian should feel the need to intervene in the politics of two Mediterranean city states is unclear.

_pw_6243Whatever the spectre’s motivation, he was immediately venerated in the city, remaining part of the states iconography until Napoleon’s arrival centuries later (ironically the same individual who ended Venetian independence).  Blaise’s head and hands (and of course a part of his throat) are paraded each year on the 3rd of February,

In modern-day Dubrovnik the Saint’s patronage lives on.  You can barely turn a corner without encountering some image of Blaise, who is characterised by the model of Dubrovnik that he carries with him.  If you think you’ve heard this story before, then you may be confusing him with Petronius of Bologna, who also had a predilection for miniaturised municipalities.

Mistaken identity is easily avoided though – the twin towers of Bologna make it easy to spot that city’s patron if you should bump into them both at a party.




I’d never come across St Blaise before Dubrovnik, and then what should I find on a day in Richmond, North Yorkshire?  Not sure a pub is an appropriate tribute!