For those who grew up during the Cold War but don’t think about it much any more, it is striking to work out that 1979, when Richard Bassett began his adventures in Central Europe, was closer in time to 1945 than it is to 2019. This was even more true for Central Europe, where the Cold War imposed a stasis that preserved some aspects of pre-war social and intellectual life — and technology — which had been swept away in the West. Bassett was a prototype young fogey before the term was coined — a Roman Catholic, French horn-playing, Cambridge History of Art graduate with an ear for languages and a gift for befriending elderly aristocrats and intellectuals. Taking a job in 1979 teaching English in Trieste, a faded Italian port cut off by politics from its Yugoslav hinterland, Bassett was soon at home. Joining the Circolo del Bridge — “open to all, but its membership was mostly made up of mentally agile octogenarians” — he finds his social life dominated by people old enough to be his grandparents. But what interesting old people: writers, poets, an aristocrat still living with servants in supposedly communist Yugoslavia, the forerunners of a range of interesting older people he befriends across Central Europe. His tweed coat comes in handy too — in Vienna he is accosted by a group of betweeded Austrian jeunesse dorée, who assume he is one of them.
Above all, this is a book about the remnants of the supranational identity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, about seeing portraits of the last Emperor in unlikely places, about people such as Gottfried Banfield, an Austro-Hungarian air ace in the First World War, the last former Imperial Austrian officer alive to have been personally decorated by the Emperor Franz Josef. It is full of vignettes, from his meeting with the last Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, Zita, on her first visit back to Austria since 1919, to a conversation with Ernst Gombrich on how music-making expresses national linguistic characteristics. The story of how a determined critic caused the dismissal of a new conductor of the Vienna State Opera is fascinating even if one has no interest in opera.
This is a gem of a book precisely because it is not an earnest analysis of the political economy of Central Europe in the 1980s, based on carefully kept notebooks and statistics. Bassett was not an ambitious young reporter doing his stint abroad before gaining a foothold in Fleet Street, but a whimsical intellectual traveller who happened to be the Times correspondent in what was assumed to be a dormant part of Europe. Before he goes to Vienna, the foreign news editor of The Times commiserates: “Nothing happens there these days . . . bit of a backwater.”
This is not a problem for Bassett, who, equipped with a copy of Teach Yourself Journalism, makes a network of friends who are interested in the same sorts of things as he — music, German literature, art history and Catholicism. These don’t include many British diplomats (or “diplomatists”, as Bassett correctly, if archaically, terms them), with whom he has a love/hate relationship: the first British press attaché he lunches with chews gum and wants to discuss football and reggae. One can feel the mutual disdain even at this distance. He has an ambivalent relationship with the British state, which he sometimes feels is watching him — the Wing Commander on the Berlin train is obviously keeping an eye on him, and probably recording their conversation; but he acknowledges the British government’s robust defence of human rights in Central Europe, and accepts invitations to lunch from British ambassadors.
As luck would have it, the 1980s saw the gradual decline and then collapse of the communist regimes in Central Europe, and Bassett was ideally placed to report on this. The Times remained a distant employer — when the Chernobyl nuclear accident happens, the foreign desk asks him to “go outdoors to see if anyone is dropping down from radioactivity”. But as the crisis deepened, Bassett covered the region, smuggling himself into the striking shipyards of Gdansk, finding a high-level Czech communist source to report on the Velvet Revolution in Prague, and being an eyewitness to the fall of the Wall in Berlin.
Bassett wears his erudition without false modesty. As an art historian, he describes approaching Venice by sea as a “magical transition from Whistler to Canaletto”; his ear for the subtleties of linguistic identity and class allow him to comment on different types of Austrian accent. He attends the Opera Ball but notes that it has become too bürglerich for the true Austrian aristocracy to attend. He writes about Salzburg without mentioning The Sound of Music, its most famous cultural export, clearly deliberate intellect-signalling.
In order to gain the confidence of his contacts, Bassett often worked without notebook or tape recorder, relying on a memory honed by Cambridge supervisions which sometimes sounds a little rose-tinted: beds are Biedermeier, women are blondes and femmes fatales in tight black silk dresses or dirndls, steam engines lend period charm, and if you go by train from Graz to Vienna you can see chamois grazing. But this isn’t a history book: it’s a charming and engaging memoir of a world now gone.