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!


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.




Crowns, Trees and Animal Skins

One of the tasks facing any newly independent nation, and one that the Croatian Government had to address in the early 1990s, is what to do about money. I’m not referring to the economy, although that should be a higher priority, and based upon the competing claims made in both the Scottish Independence Referendum and the Brexit vote it’s virtually impossible to forecast accurately. No, I mean cash. Notes and coins. The balance in your bank account.

_PW_6886The UK never entered into European Monetary Union, so our exit from the EU won’t include such a challenge, but let’s say that Scotland had voted to leave; what would they have used for currency and how would they have valued it?

Back when I was a young banker working on the “foreign till” anyone travelling to Yugoslavia would come to ask for dinar, though I suspect there were probably exchange control regulations that might have limited the availability.  When the communist state disintegrated the same currency continued in use for a little while (though it became the Croatian Dinar) while the administration considered alternatives.

In 1994 they issued the kuna, which was equivalent to 1000 dinars and with an exchange rate pegged to the German mark until its replacement by the euro.  The intention was that Croatia would join the European Monetary Union in due course at which point they would also adopt the euro.  Some businesses, including my hotel, are already charging in euros, and just over 50% of the population favour its adoption (40% oppose it) and it remains to be seen when the transition will take place.  Ordinarily it should have happened within a year or two of joining, but the financial crises that have beset Europe have delayed that.

_PW_6877But back to the kuna.  I’d wrongly assumed that the word itself was a variation on crown, such krone and krona as used in Scandinavia and Iceland, or koruna in Czech, but the Croatian word would then have been kruna.  Kruna was actually considered, but as the currency of their former Austro-Hungarian overlords this was rejected.  So why kuna?

The word means marten, and goes back to a Slavic tradition of using the pelts of the animal as currency in medieval times.  Each kuna is worth 100 lipa (meaning lime tree) though I don’t understand the logic either of the name, or the existence of the lipa at all.  Since a kuna is roughly equivalent to 11p in the UK or 15¢ in the US what is the point of such a subdivision?  Everything I saw was priced in whole kune, and I never received anything less than a kuna in loose change.  Marten pelts clearly aren’t what they used to be, but imagine if they still had the dinar?  Ah yes, it would have been just like Italy in the 70’s!

A little disappointing then that the notes don’t actual portray the beast…_PW_6880

Luckily the coins do!_pw_7372

Out of Obscurity

One of the things about living in the UK is that its relatively easy to map out what Winston Churchill described as A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, the Celts who populated these islands were joined by the cosmopolitan militia and auxiliaries of the Roman Empire, who were in turn pushed aside by migrating Angles and Saxons, interfered with by pillaging Vikings, and then subjugated by the French when Harold Godwinson saw off the Norwegian threat but not the Norman.

And that’s pretty much it until we began empire-building and found that people from our colonies arrived here to join our population, but throughout our racial intermingling one thing remained constant; Britain.  Being an island race our borders have remained largely unchanged other than when the Republic of Ireland achieved independence.  Yes the kingdoms that made up Britain have pulsated as battles were fought over demarcation lines between England and Scotland or Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex and the other Anglo-Saxon lands, but the inhabitants are nevertheless seen as British.

_PW_4653-EditContrast this with Croatia.  Their declaration of independence from Yugoslavia was a bloody one, but why were they so adamant that they were different?  Yugoslavia was a 20th Century construct, but one that the Croatians originally signed up to.  Why do they see themselves as different to the Serbs?  Or Bosnians?  My first introduction to the tribal nature of the region was Alistair MacLean’s Force 10 from Navarone; a fun read for a teenage boy but I doubt it can be considered reliable source material!

_PW_6509The divisions go back a long way.  Those who settled in this area in the period following the end of Roman influence had a choice of influences between Rome to the West and Byzantium to the East.  The Croats chose Rome and Catholicism, the Serbs chose the Orthodox Christian tradition.  Bosnia went its own way and chose an independent Bosnian church.  Religious divisions are nothing new.

_PW_6228Like the inhabitants of the UK, the Croats may well have their roots elsewhere, with some theories pointing to Iran, whilst historical records suggest a group of “Red Croats” living in Dalmatia (the Adriatic Coastline of what was Yugoslavia) with “White Croats” migrating in from lands further north between Czechia and Poland.  The red and white chequerboard on their coat of arms is coincidental in this respect, though a fitting symbol if the nations is built from the merging of these two groups.

Add in the impact of rule from the Venetian Republic, Austria-Hungary, Communists and Fascists and you can see why the politics of this beautiful coastal region has been so confused over the years._PW_5363

This then will be my first posting based on my experiences of a brief visit to the country and there’ll probably be about a dozen so I’ll put them up monthly.  They’ll be full of my usual ignorance, curiosity and prejudice and hopefully a decent picture or two.  They’ll also be coloured no doubt by centuries of changing identity.

Lopud, Elaphiti Islands, Croatia