Read any Good Books Lately (#21): The Balkans – The Middle of Nowhere and the Center of Everything

Australia. “The Land Down Under” and the last great discovery in “The Golden Age of Exploration”. An island continent perched  on the edge of nothing. Below Australia there is no significant land mass until Antartica. To the East there a lots of scattered Pacific islands but no major land mass until until you eventually hit South America. To the west, provided you steer ever so slightly north there is Africa but if you veer just a little bit south there is nothing until you hit the east coast of South America. Once again, to the north of Australia there are lots of island nations but no major land mass until you hit the Asian mainland. Australia is a long, long way from everywhere, including the Balkans.

The Balkans. Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia of the former Yugoslavia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria  Albania, Macedonia and Greece are a collection of small nations that are the buffer states between Christian Europe and the Islamic states of Asia and the Middle East. If it were only as simple as a  case of East meets West then maybe the history of the region would have been different. Within the Balkans there is a hoge-poge mixture of ethnic and religious animosities. Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Albanians, Hungarians, Romanians, Macedonians, Muslim, Orthodox Christians, protestant denominations and  Roman Catholics all intent on pursuing their own agendas.  On first glance one would be forgiven for discounting the Balkans as a region of world wide significance. And yet what happened in the Balkans in 1914 precipitated World War I and impacted the whole world. Australia is a long way from the Balkans and yet the activities there eventually resulted in Australian and New Zealand troops fighting the Turks in the Dardanelles. That campaign became a monumental military disaster and gave birth to the ANZAC mythology that has became ingrained in the culture of both of those countries. How is that possible?

The author Tim Butcher was obviously puzzled by notion of how could the assassination of two Austrian Royals in a nondescript  Balkan city in 1914 lead to a World war. After all Arch Duke Ferdinand wasn’t the first assassination in that part of the world. What was so different about the circumstances of that particular event? Tim explores the event and then  goes onto explore the ongoing pivotal role of the Balkans in the history of the twentieth century.

The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War (Kindle Edition)

“A splendid book, part memoir, part history,” about the teenager who killed Archduke Ferdinand and sparked World War I.

“Sarajevo, 1914.  On a June morning, nineteen-year-old Gavrilo Princip drew a pistol from his pocket and fired the first shot of the First World War, killing the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Princip then launched a series of events that would transform the world forever. Retracing Princip’s steps from the feudal frontier village of his birth to the city of Belgrade and ultimately Sarajevo, journalist and bestselling author Tim Butcher discovers details about the young assassin that have eluded historians for a century. Drawing on his own experiences in the Balkans covering the Bosnian War in the 1990s, Butcher also unravels the complexities and conflicts of this part of the world, showing how the events of that day in 1914 still have influence today.” –  Amazon Books……

For history buffs this is a good fast read and I highly recommend it as a companion to Balkan Ghosts – A Journey through History by Robert D. Kaplan (1993). To have some understanding of the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s this is an essential read. I have read it several times and I will probably read it again.

Most books on the Balkans point back to the 1938 travel book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by novelist Rebecca West. Although it is listed as a classic I found it heavy going.

On a tangential subject Why Angels Fall – A journey Through Orthodox Europe from Byzantium to Kosovo by Victoria Clark (2000) is also an excellent read. Back in the heyday of the Soviet empire there was a belief that the empire was evil because the communists had lost religion. It was thought that once they found religion again the world would come back into balance. That has turned out to be a pretty naive assumption. The Soviet empire has gone and Putin’s Russia is once again Orthodox and yet nothing much has changed.  Victoria Clark’s book is an exploration of the impact of the various Christian Orthodox religions on modern Eastern Europe. Unfortunately it is a book that is hard to find. My edition I picked up in a second hand book store in Sydney Australia.

(2022//01/03 – I have just discovered that Why ANGELS Fall is now available from Kindle for $9.99)


Postcript: Growing up in Sydney,  Australia any notion of the Balkans was intimately linked with the the local football (Soccer) clubs. The growth of the sport was linked to post war immigration from Britain and Southern Europe. Local clubs conformed to ethnic origins with such teams as Yugal, Croatia, Pan-Hellenic, Macedonian and Italian based clubs. Fans were divided along ethnic lines and often reflected old loyalties and divisions in the home countries. This often led to tensions off the field. If I remember correctly this lead to the renaming of some clubs to diffuse ethnic tensions. Also, if I remember correctly, in the 1960s it was not uncommon to read in the newspaper of bricks thrown through the window of the Yugoslav Consulate in Sydney. At that time ethnicYugoslav tensions in Australia were high off and on the soccer field.

Migrants continued to boost interest in the sport in the 1970s and 1980s, especially from the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia.


Gordie Tentrees at Centre 64

Gordie Tentrees at Centre 64 in Kimberley, Saturday November 28, 2021, 8pm

In this day and age performers like Gordie Tentrees are labelled as Singer / Song writers. In Gordie’s case that is true but it is not the whole story. Singer / Song writers can run the whole gamut from trivial pop music through the most esoteric music possible. In a different era Gordie would have been labelled simply as a “Folk Singer” but these days that is a rather a quaint label to hang on an artist. When was the last time you saw “Folk Singer” given any promotional  prominence? Never-the-less, that’s what Gordie is, an honest-to-goodness folk singer and storyteller in the tradition of Woody Gutherie (without the prewar politics), Pete Seeger (without the banjo), John Prine (without the twang) and, closer to home, the Canadians Freddie Eaglesmith and David Francy. With these masters the story is the thing and in Gordie’s case the songs are slices of life polished to a gem like luster to enhance the story.

Gordie Tentrees (vocal, guitar, harmonica, Dobro, foot tambourine and stomp box) was accompanied by his side kick, the “icon of the Yukon”, Bob Hamilton on pedal steel guitar, mandolin and arc top guitar. They traveled down from Whitehorse in the Yukon to do a string of twelve performances and, despite the horrendous weather, torrential rains, floods, wash outs and road closures they made it all the way through to Kimberley for the gig on Saturday November 28, 2021. The next day they headed off to Calgary for the long trip back up north to their home base in Whitehorse. That is a lot of kilometers to traverse to play twelve gigs in venues governed by strict Covid rules.

The show opened with some nice, gentle pedal steel guitar on the song Wind Walker. For the next hour and a half the audience was treated to a plethora of stories and songs that touched on Far Away Friends, Ring Speed (experiences as a boxer), Bye Gone Days (a desire to rewrite Canadian history), Craft Beards and Man Buns (dubious man fashions), Less is More (you don’t have to be a deadbeat dad), a Tlingit song and lots of stories culled from and interesting life that started in Bancroft, Ontario before heading across Canada and the world. Along the way he spent time in New Zealand and Western Australia and in one of my favorite places – Byron Bay, New South Wales.

Bob Hamilton played his appointed role as an accompanist on Pedal steel guitar in a C6 tuning (for those interested in that sort of thing), some driving mandolin and arc top guitar. Geordie gave him lots of solo space and spiced up the music with some tasteful foot tambourine and stomp box. Because of covid restrictions there was no interval. In these trying times we are thankful for the Kimberley crew who planned and organized the evening’s music. Well done guys.

Here are some more images from the evening:




Gordie’s  comments on race relations are worth repeating “the New Zealanders are way ahead of Canada and Australia is way, way behind”. Australia has yet to confront its racist past and its treatment of indigenous people. I can verify his opinions. I am Australian born and lived in Australia until I moved to Canada in my early 30’s. Growing up in Australia I had no contact with Aborigines. I met my first Aborigine in  Byron Bay while working in a slaughter house. I was then in my late twenties. Prior to that time I had worked and lived in Sydney and each day I caught the train into the city to go to work.. Each day I would step off the train at Central station and, unbeknownst to me,  immediately behind the station, on the other side of tracks, so to speak, there was an aboriginal ghetto.I worked in the city for nine years without being aware of that fact.  In later years I learnt there were parts of the city where “whites” were not welcome. In the late 1960s I hitch hiked across Australia to Perth and outside Kalgoorlie in Western Australia I was picked up by a driver who must have been in his seventies. In conversation he mentioned that in his youth he was a drover on one of the big cattle stations and, because they speared cattle,  he said that they were under orders to shoot “wild blacks”. That would have placed such instances back in the early part of the twentieth century. Not that long ago when you stop and think about it.

Since that time I have traveled to New Zealand a number of times. I even lived there for the best part of a year and became aware of the Maori culture and its impact and integration into New Zealand society. New Zealand must be the only place on the planet where the indigenous culture has changed the white man. If I had not finally settled in Canada, New Zealand would have been my choice as a place to live and bring up a family. Every body should take a trip to New Zealand before they die. It is a very special place.