The origins of entrenched thought

On a mild Sunday afternoon in November, thousands of people have gathered for a special event in Nîmes, France. The Levée des Tridents.

Hundreds of riders from the Camargue, the tough but beautiful Rhône Delta south of Nîmes, get ready for a parade.

They ride an ancient breed of stocky white horses that live semi-feral lives in the marshlands.

The long poles they carry are used for rounding up cattle that also live semi-feral lives. The poles have three points on the end and are, unsurprisingly, known as tridents.

The parade is recreating an event that happened 100 years ago.

In 1921, the S.P.D.A. (Society for Protection of Animals) applied to the courts to ban bullfighting in Nîmes and other arenas in southern France.

But there was a fightback. Local people were rallied to defend bullfighting.

A parade was held.

Posters were written in both the local language, Occitan, and French.

Let’s look at one of those posters a little more closely.

Loosely translated, it says that the people of the South have made their contribution to saving France in the First World War, which had ended only three years earlier. Now they needed to protect their language (Langue d’Oc also known as Occitan) and bullfighting.

Language – doesn’t that seem odd?

Isn’t this about bullfighting?

What has language got to do with it?

In the mid-19th century only half of people in France spoke French as a first language.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries an aggressive push was made to ensure the French language was the only language of France, particularly by the Prime Minister Jules Ferry.

Occitan was banned in schools.

The sign in this school reads “SPEAK FRENCH, BE CLEAN

Speaking local languages was a source of shame, known as the Vergonha. It is still a controversial topic.

Other signs in schools included rules like: “It is forbidden to spit on the ground and speak patois.”

Languages like Occitan were referred to as a patois, or French dialect. Actually, the language has more in common with Catalan.

Now let’s look at a poster by the local branch of the Society for Protection of Animals who wanted to ban bullfighting.

What languages are used? – only French

What is the very first thing said?

Si vous êtes civilisés” – If you are civilised

What should be a poster about the rights and wrongs of bullfighting becomes a question of whether you are civilised or not. Isn’t this in a similar tone to “Speak French, be clean” or “It is forbidden to spit on the ground and speak patois“?

If you felt looked down on and talked down to, how would you react?

Actually, the pro-bullfighting posters asking locals to protect their ancient ways weren’t being fully honest. Bullfighting may be ancient, but the first recorded bullfight in France took place in 1853, less than 70 years before. Fights had to be conducted with Spanish Brava bulls as native breeds weren’t aggressive enough. It wasn’t for another 20 years that locals started breeding their own fighting bulls – just 50 years of rearing bulls for bullfighting, or half the time between the first Levée des Tridents and the present.

Let’s get back to the parade.

While bands play music with a decidedly Spanish feel…

the riders process through the streets.

People wait their turn to have their photo taken with Spanish bullfighter Juan José Padilla, known as the “Pirate” after losing an eye when gored in the bullring. Despite a miraculous recovery and quick return to the ring, he was injured again and retired soon after that.

People (mostly ladies) wear traditional costumes.

Speeches are made including one by the current Queen of Arles, who is elected to promote the culture of neighbouring Province. Almost everyone is paying attention.

The great-grandson of the founder of the first Levée des Tridents noted:

c’est surtout un cortège pour la défense des traditions, de notre langue et de tout notre pays de Camargue” – Above all, it’s a procession to defend traditions, language and [the] Camargue

While there may be an older feel to much of the parade, there are young people actively involved.

There is also a new generation of bullfighters.

In Nîmes, they have a local hero to look up to – Nimeño II

He was one of the greatest bullfighters of his generation but was badly injured in the ring and being unable to fight again, committed suicide.

The thirtieth anniversary of his death was just a few days after the parade.

It isn’t just bullfighters who are at risk. Rearing aggressive breeds of bulls is dangerous. A few days after the parade, a cow-heard was badly gored at a farm in the Camargue.

After the parade, social media played its part. Tweets were posted calling for the protection of bullfighting. The twitter account for the body organising the parade tweeted:

Liberté– Freedom

The call for freedom by a local group to central government is something shared with their neighbours in Spanish Catalonia. In 2010, the Catalonian government demonstrated their independence from Madrid by banning bullfighting.

Since the first Levée des Tridents, the people of the Languedoc have shown their determination to hold onto their traditions, their language and their freedom. They have taken back control.

But doesn’t this lead to a paradox?

How can you uphold traditions and have freedom to come to your own conclusions about issues like bullfighting? Did the people on the parade have the freedom to honour their forefathers and hold an independent view from them?

We will never know, unless…

one day, people of the Languedoc stop fighting bulls.

The guardhouse of miracles and grievance

At first glance, Guardhouse 30, is an unlikely looking pilgrimage site.

It was built in the 1890s to oversee rail traffic passing from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Kingdom of Romania, but fell into disuse after the First World War when the border disappeared and Transylvania became part of modern-day Romania.

However, this is the place that in 2008 the Miracle of Gyimes Valley occurred.

András Deáky, a retired school teacher, who owns a B&B in the valley, decided to buy and renovate Guardhouse 30, which had been the scene of intense fighting in 1944 between Hungarian and Red Army units.

Initially there was local authority resistance to his activities. But he defiantly went ahead anyway and upon completion, organised an inauguration ceremony. This is when András’ miracle occurred. Rather than a handful of locals pitching up, an estimated 40,000 people came, creating gridlock for hours. How much social media was responsible for this divine occurrence is unclear, but that hasn’t stopped thousands flocking here every year at Pentecost.


András wasn’t finished there. He handed control of the Guardhouse to the local community and set to work on raising money and organising the restoration of the other buildings on the same site.

First the Chapel of Kontumác, then the former quarantine station. After that, the creation of a memorial to the Hungarian soldiers who died defending the valley against the Red Army in 1944.

One day, he hopes to restore the ruins of Rákóczi Castle, but for now, visitors have to make do with climbing up the steep steps to the ruins for a great view.

There is also a covered area where the Pentecost services are held and speeches made.

András hasn’t spoken at the last two occasions due to ill health (He is nearly 80). But in 2017, he had a clear message to the pilgrims. And it is one about unity, at least for Hungarians.

“It doesn’t matter if we are right-wing or left-wing. We Hungarians were never the same, but that’s not a problem. What’s more, it’s not desirable. The more diverse we are, the more valuable we are. But dear ones present, there are sacred things in the life of the nation that we cannot make fun of, none of us. Because as long as we Hungarians in Transylvania and you in Hungary hate each other in the colors of different political parties, there is no Hungarian future. We should put an end to this thing once, sit down at the table like civilized people, and agree on a national minimum that we all respect.”

While pilgrims mull over his words, they can trek up a path to the top of an adjacent hill where there is a traditionally-styled gate known as the Gate of Life, Faith, and Nation.

Passing through the gate leads to a set of wooden posts which usually appear on graves. Each post contains a key date in Hungarian history and a word:

Szabadsag, egység, hagyomany, kultura, jog, anyanyelv, csalad, haza, isten

Freedom, unity, tradition, culture, law, mother tongue, family, home/homeland, God

Beyond the posts is a set of wooden crosses which would seem familiar to any Catholic as stations of the cross.

But in place of the usual pictures of Jesus’ ordeals, there are names and locations of Hungarian towns and settlements.

While taking in the view I talk to Istvan, who is here with his wife and children. I ask him what all of this means to him. He sighs, and despite his fluent English, he’s lost for words.

Trianon? I suggest.


After the First World War, the former Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up, loosely on ethnic lines, and large parts of the former Kingdom of Hungary were assigned to the victors like Romania, or to new countries like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Hungary lost 72% of its territory.

The Hungarians living in places like Transylvania found themselves citizens of a different country, even if they were in the vast majority in their local area, like the Gyimes valley.

source: wikipedia

So how do Hungarians feel about this 100 years later? According to a recent survey nearly nine out of 10 Hungarians consider the treaty a national tragedy. Victor Orban put it more bluntly,  “The West raped the thousand-year-old borders .. and made a death row out of our country.”

Walking back through the Gate of Life, Faith, and Nation, there’s a view of the castle, but also the beautiful valley, woodlands and the river Tatras which along with the railway and road pass seamlessly into Moldavia.

I go to the car park to get something to eat from one of the stalls. I buy a typical Hungarian snack, Langos and instantly make two new friends – stray dogs who wait patiently for me to give them the leftovers.

I’m left to ruminate with my two new friends on András’ legacy. On the one hand, he has shown what an individual can do when they put their mind to it. A retired teacher/B&B owner can restore neglected historic buildings and in the process bring thousands of people here to share in his dream.

But it’s a dream with troubling visions. For some, the dream is mindent vissza! (everything back!) – one where Hungary’s pre-Trianon borders are restored. Many proudly show badges in the shape of the former border… If they had their way, then Guardhouse 30 would become the border frontier once more.

But it’s a dream which willfully ignores some hard facts.

Here in Transylvania less than 20% of the population identify as Hungarian. Other former territories include Croatia and parts of Serbia which, given the bloody end to Yugoslavia, offer a reminder of where stoking ethnic tension can lead.

Occasionally there are scuffles here in Transylvania, as happened in the Uz Valley in 2019 over the treatment of war graves.

But for all the dreams, Hungary isn’t going to get it’s pre-Trianon borders back any more than the Hapsburg Empire’s going to reform.

So isn’t all this pining for a former border a little bit … masochistic?

It’s also blinkered.

Just a few hundred metres down the road into Moldavia is another memorial which isn’t on the pilgrimage trail.

Here is the Emil Rebreanu memorial.

Emil was an ethic Romanian serving in the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War. He was every bit the war hero – decorated for bravery, injured and rapidly promoted while fighting on the Russian and Italian fronts. But then he was reassigned to fight on the new front which had been created when Romania joined the war. Faced with this painful dilemma, he decided to switch sides, but was caught deserting and hanged.

Emil’s brother Liviu wrote about it in his novel Forest of the Hanged which painfully recounts the difficulties faced by many soldiers in the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian army.

The novel also sheds some light on the curious mixing of religion with ethnicity. In the end, the hero of the novel ends up meeting his doomed fate, but not before falling in love with a Hungarian and marrying her.

And that perhaps is the real story for many ethnic Romanians and Hungarians in Transylvania over the last century. They fall in love, marry, have children, travel, work anywhere they want in Europe, build a nest egg, buy a little home and get on with their lives in peace.

In the end, isn’t that the real miracle?

The sundial that became a moral compass

“Lay me quietly in the earth, place a sun-dial over my grave, and let me be forgotten.”

– John Howard, on his deathbed January 1790

How do you memorialise someone who should be remembered, but has explicitly said they don’t want a memorial?

For the creators of the memorial to John Howard in Kherson, Ukraine, the solution was to take his dying words literally.

John Howard was a curious chap, as Tessa West observed in her biography. As a single-mined man of means, who today may well have had Asperger’s Syndrome, he was the Greta Thunberg of his day. Shaped by his own experiences of incarceration at the hands of the French, once he was in a position of authority in Bedford, UK, he set about inspecting the local prison. What he found was not only squalid, but dysfunctional. The state did not pay prison warders, so they had to make their money from the inmates, which created a cycle of debt and misery.

After coming up with some practical solutions, which could be applied to both prisons and hospitals, he published his findings. They became a bestseller and this spurred him on to set off around Europe knocking on the doors of prisons and telling the local bigwigs what he thought.

But rather than alienating himself, he seems to have been become something of a celebrity. This may have had as much to do with his reputation of also being a brilliant, albeit self-taught, doctor and was asked to help cure the sick while he was in the area.

Eventually his travels took him to Kherson in the new Russian lands where he finally contracted gaol fever (typhus) and died. The funeral was grand, as was his grave and ultimately his sundial memorial, which was built a couple of decades later.

Having been restored in 1990, the sundial has been maintained pretty well which, given the difficult times Ukraine has been through, is a mark of how it is valued.

So what possible use has a sundial now – they were out-of-date even when the memorial was built?

For anyone who likes their time-pieces to have features, this comes well-stacked. First, it is two sundials for the price of one, as the monument is an obelisk with a circular wall which is great for those who like precision or perhaps anyone who happened to be passing by in a newly invented hot-air balloon.

Second it is adorned with a nice picture of a slightly grumpy gilded John Howard.

Third, it comes with a number of inspirational mottoes.

  • ‘Alios salvos fecit’ (He saved others)
  • ‘Vixit propter alios’ (He lived for others)
  • It also says in Russian ‘Rest in peace, People’s friend’.

On my visit it also had two red carnations from an unknown admirer.

But there is one final feature. After visiting it, you become sensitised to other thoughtful monuments.

In Slavy Park, amongst all the heroic Soviet stuff, two memorials stand out despite being rather hidden away. Who could walk past the suffering of this mother who, presumably lost her son in Afghanistan and now seeks solace in religion without a twinge of sympathy?

And who could see this monument to the Chernobyl catastrophe and not just remember their sacrifice, but also that we are all part of the same world.

Back in the UK, John Howard’s wish to not be remembered has also been ignored. Here he is in Bedford.

He seems to be thinking a lot about something.

In his shoes, I’d be thinking why am I standing on top of a bunch of cherubic kids playing around with theatrical Greek comedy masks?

This makes more sense when you know that the statue was created by Gilbert Allen who also designed the Statue of Eros in London’s theatre district. So in one way this is more in line with John Howard’s wish. It isn’t really a monument to him or his life’s work and, judging by the people walking past, he has well and truly been forgotten.

He should also be satisfied that in nearby Cardington, there is little clue that this was where he lived. However, this may be because his works have been overshadowed by a more recent event. A clue is in the village sign with the big grey sausage in the sky. The R101 airship was housed nearby and after it crashed in France in 1930, the 36 who died were buried here in the graveyard.

However, John Howard has left a legacy here which you can still see today.

A set of cottages which he had built to a high standard made sure that locals could live decently. He charged the going rate in rent which covered the cost of repairs and maintenance. He used his wealth to create the conditions for decent living, but it was then up to the people themselves to keep up to it.

As for his former home, there is little to signify who once lived here other than it being called Howard House.

But Howard’s name does live on in a more significant way through the charities that have been established to promote better prison conditions, such as the Howard League for Penal Reform.

One mystery remains. Why did he want a sundial placed over his body?

Was there a sundial in that garden? Was he trying to recreate a little piece of his home in this distant land? Or was he just expressing his exasperation at local timekeeping.

We will never know.

What we do know is that one person can make a big difference, on issues that might at first seem unimportant to the rich and powerful.

We also know that no-one in Kherson has an excuse for being late because they don’t know the time – as long as it’s sunny.

re-learning Swedish in the Ukraine

Four times a week, in the village of Gammalsvenskby in Southern Ukraine, villagers of all ages gather together at the end of the school day. It’s time for their next Swedish lesson. Why?

The clue is in the village’s name:

Gammal – old, svensk – swedish, by – village

Gammalsvenskby is an old Swedish village.

240 years ago, as the Russian Empire expanded southward into Ottoman territories, settlers were needed to populate the newly conquered lands, known as Novorossiya or New Russia.

One group ready to move was the thousand-strong Swedish speaking population of Dagö, an island in modern-day Estonia, who were in dispute with their landlord. The long journey south was arduous and half of them died en-route. Cultivating the new lands was difficult and within two years the population was down to 136, but they recovered and made a prosperous village.

The Bolshevik Revolution, civil war, famine, purges and finally the Second World War decimated the village. Most villagers who could leave, went ‘back’ to Sweden or on further to Canada but a few stayed on. Now there are only three ladies left for whom Swedish is a first language, but a new generation of Swedish speakers are emerging. I went to the school to meet their teacher Larisa and some of her students.

I wanted to talk to them about why they were spending their free time learning Swedish. Although Larisa speaks very good English, she was clearly determined to do the best by her students and made sure this was going to be a lesson. Of course we could all talk, but we would do it in Swedish …

I know some basic Swedish, thanks to my other half and her relatives, but now I was in at the deep-end and wondered if I’d be thrown enough linguistic buoyancy aids to ‘swim’.

But I needn’t have worried. With help from Larisa and the patience of everyone, we had a pretty good chat.

My new classmates…

So why are my new fellow classmates learning Swedish? For one 15-year-old girl, it was clear, she wanted to do broaden her horizons and travel to Sweden to study and then maybe work. But for the older students, learning Swedish was a chance to connect with their roots and not just in an abstract way.

Links between the villagers who stayed and emigres (or their relatives) have been fostered through Svenskbyborna, an association based on the Swedish island of Gotland. Every year, Swedes come to the village, many retracing their ancestors’ footsteps, and spend a few days living with one of the families.

I ask what feels like a cheeky question. All Swedes speak English right? So why not learn English and then it would be easy to take in guests from other countries as well? Of course, this would be a sensible idea in the same way it would be sensible for everyone to just give up their own languages and speak English or perhaps Mandarin.

As it stands, non-Swedish visitors to Gammalsvenskby are few and far between and are certainly unlikely to arrive on a tour bus. A couple of years back, Larisa saw a guy standing at the bus stop who clearly wasn’t a local. She asked him in English if he was a tourist. “I’m not a tourist, I’m a traveller” was his Livingstonian reply.

It was time for me to say goodbye to my new classmates and go for a wander around the village. Gammalsvenskby, which is part of the wider settlement of Zmiivka, also includes three other old villages which had been set up by German settlers. However, none remained after the Second World War so the only evidence they were here is in the buildings.

Zmiivka commands a dramatic view of the Dnieper river and is mostly made up of modest single story houses. Each has a garden to grow fruit and veg as well as a yard for chickens, geese and an apparently mandatory dog.

The most striking buildings in the village are the Soviet-era library and the cultural centre. For a community of around 2,400 people, they are much grander than you might get in Western Europe, but therein lies the problem – maintenance. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the more recent hostilities with Russia, buildings like these have fallen into disrepair.

Whilst repairing the village’s public buildings may feel urgent to a visitor, for locals there are more immediate concerns. Since the war with Russia and the loss of the coal mining areas in Ukraine, heating homes during winter has become a real worry. So the
Svenskbyborna association is looking to provide practical support with planting fast growing willow which will make them more self-sufficient, not to mention the environmental benefits.

The association is also planning to set up a museum in the village which they hope to open in May 2020.

As a longer term aim, they have looked into possible land reform to make sure the locals have more than basic subsistence plots. However first things first: a democracy project has been initiated to empower the locals in the village to take charge of and run whatever the association helps to provide.

It isn’t just the buildings that need work. Last summer water from the village wells was sent to Sweden for analysis and found to be not fit for drinking.

So who will carry out the work? A quarter of the villagers are pensioners and about 100 people from the village are currently working in Poland, probably back-filling for the Poles working in Germany, UK or even Sweden. But in the long chain of migration, the village has it’s own immigrant, Enoch from Zimbabwe, although I unfortunately didn’t manage to track him down.

Wandering around the village on a spring day it’s hard not to feel optimistic, albeit slightly impatient that the village hasn’t already opened its museum and thereby had a means of sharing it’s story with the wider world. After all, the Swedes are just one chapter of a story that goes back to neolithic times.

For the Greeks this was on the Amber Road that connected the Black Sea with the Baltic. Archaeological digs have found treasures here which are kept in the Kherson Museum. The story of the Scythian, Tatar, Cossack, Russian, Ukrainian, German and yes, Zimbabwean settlers should to be told.

By telling their story, there’s an opportunity for everyone, visitors and locals to learn about what makes this village special. It is also a chance to rethink our understanding of migration, nationhood and what it means to belong somewhere.

So when the museum opens, I intend to be it’s first visitor – as a tourist and not a traveller.