SCHOLARS AND RADICALS

by Chris Fenton; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Looking for the original Anglichani in Bulgaria

When a Bulgarian TV crew came to our village in northeastern Bulgaria to shoot a beer advert they wanted British people in the film, so we appeared as ourselves. The image they portrayed in the 30-second clip is cosy and crafty, and shows the British incomers playing a natural part in village life. I am happy to say that this image is true, as all of us have been warmly welcomed here since day one.

It is often literature that gives identity to immigrant communities and frames how we see them. For the British abroad there is Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence or Chris Stewart's Driving Over Lemons for Spain and going further back Gerald Durrell in Corfu or Patrick Leigh Fermor writing about northern Greece and the Peloponnese. For Bulgaria there are no equivalent works of literature to tell us how long the British have been coming here.

I asked Milcho, the bar owner, how his countrymen regarded mine and he told me about John Lawton of the 1970s rock band Uriah Heap. Kolyo, the retired school teacher, came up and added William Gladstone, the Liberal politician from the late 19th century, and James Bourchier, the Irish journalist from the beginning of the 20th century. Gladstone spoke against Ottoman atrocities during the suppression of the 1876 April Uprising, and Bourchier defended the Bulgarian national cause after the country regained its independence.

But there is another group of Britons with fascinating stories who have a close association with Bulgaria. Sometimes you only need to look at Bulgarian street names to see them, like Buxton Brothers Boulevard and James Harvey Gaul Street in Sofia and Lady Strangford Street in Plovdiv. They were linguists, philanthropists and scholars, and whilst some were radical in their politics, all of them were keen to escape the confines of stuffy old England.

Steven Runciman was a close friend to George Orwell at Eton College during the First World War and he is best known for his work on the history of the Crusades which still overshadows modern scholarship. His main focus as a historian was the Byzantine Empire and because he was also interested in its medieval neighbours, he came to Sofia in 1928 having taught himself Bulgarian. Two years later he published his A History of the First Bulgarian Empire. It is still in print.

History is made of threads connecting people and in 1934, while attending the annual congress of Byzantine studies in Sofia, Runciman bumped into a young man in the hotel bar. It was Patrick Leigh Fermor and the encounter led to a life-long friendship. Leigh Fermor was on his epic journey that had taken him on foot from the Hook of Holland through Central Europe to Romania and Bulgaria. He was heading for Mount Athos in Greece and then on to Istanbul. Runciman, apparently, always laughed about meeting this "very grubby boy" who had been tramping about the Rhodope mountains. Leigh Fermor's two books on the journey as far as Romania – A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, are travel writing classics but we all had to wait until after his death to read about the trip through Bulgaria, published in 2013 as The Broken Road. It is an insight, through the eyes of a curious Englishman, into a period that seems suspended in time. He describes the cosmopolitan character of cities like Plovdiv and Ruse with their Greek and Ladino-Jewish communities and everywhere he looks there are hangovers from the Ottoman past.

Leigh Fermor was energetic and adventurous and, as an undercover agent, he parachuted into Crete to liaise with the Greek anti-Nazi partisans during the Second World War. In a famous tale which was later made into a film, they captured the German commander of the island. This undercover work for the SOE is a second thread that brings us to another Englishman and one who is fondly remembered in Bulgaria.

Major Frank Thompson was the brother of the labour historian EP Thompson and both were left wing radicals, something quite common in the academic circles of 1930s Oxford. Like Leigh Fermor, Thompson was an SOE agent and because he could speak Bulgarian, he was sent into Bulgarian-occupied part of Macedonia in 1944 to link up with local anti-Nazi resistance. Thompson's mission was beset with problems. They could not organise supplies, nor confirm orders because their radio set had broken down and in the end the whole group were captured by Bulgarian gendarmes near Batuliya, a village in the Iskar Gorge north of Sofia. Thompson himself was shot after a short trial even though he should have been protected as an enemy in uniform under the Geneva Convention. According to Peter Conradi's book A Very English Hero: The Making of Frank Thompson, he had often flirted in his poetry with the idea of a hero's death, fighting for a foreign cause. After 1944, Communist Bulgaria was quick to remember its martyrs. In 1960, several villages near the place where he was captured were incorporated into a new village, which is still called Tompsan. In the 1970s, his remains were reburied in a marked grave with a monument close to Litakovo Village. Both Major Thompson and Stephen Runciman have streets named for them in Sofia.

It was through the Major Thompson English Youth Brigade that Mercia MacDermott first came to Bulgaria in 1948 to work as a student volunteer on the Koprinka Dam. Back at the time, Communist Bulgaria used youths volunteers to build crucial infrastructure projects, serving a three-fold purpose: improving roads and creating new factories and facilities, advertise the new regime and turn young Bulgarians into dedicated Communists. However, a number of foreigners also joined.

Mercia MacDermott, who was born in 1927, had a lot in common with both Runciman and Thompson and had studied Russian at Oxford University. Like Thompson she was also a Communist. More than that, she seems to have fallen in love with Bulgaria and has been described as being "more Bulgarian than the Bulgarians," having absorbed the country's culture and language like a sponge. In the summer of 1948, she was on the beach at Druzhba, or Friendship, Bulgaria's first Black Sea resort now known with its old name Ss Constantine and Helena, with fellow international students. They were the perfect propaganda opportunity and the Communist authorities did not miss the chance: the students were invited to visit Communist dictator Georgi Dimitrov who was occupying the former royal palace. There is a grainy photograph of her sitting next to him surrounded by other students in work clothes and army fatigues, all of them beaming from ear to ear.

Mercia MacDermott went on to make a significant contribution to Bulgarian history, writing books on the Macedonian revolutionaries Gotse Delchev and Yane Sandanski as well as the life of national hero Vasil Levski which was first published in English in 1967. I bought my copy from a market stall in Sofia in 2012 and the bookseller told me all about its English author and the official awards of recognition she had received as he held the book in his hands for as long as possible. It was his last copy of the original print. When Kolyo, the retired teacher, spoke about her he pronounced her name oddly. The stress was in all the wrong places for an English surname but that was OK because it almost gave her a second identity, underlining her Bulgarian fame. The wrong pronunciation was actually established for political purposes. If spelled correctly, Mercia in Bulgarian sounds exactly like the word for carrion. Thus Bulgarian authorities changed it.

Mercia MacDermott taught at the English High School in Sofia in the 1960s and 1970s and quickly became a national celebrity. She wrote that it was hard to go out in the street in Bulgaria without being recognised and she once said in an interview, "I got onto a tram once and the driver rose and kissed my hand to thank me for my work on Levski." It helps that she had a very distinctive face, long and almost timeless with a powerful nose that made her head look like a temple as if she could never have been young. She has lived back in England for many years now but is still said to carry a piece of Levski's hair, given to her by a member of his family, in a locket round her neck like a love token.

Like Thompson, MacDermott was fascinated by the idea of dying for a strongly held belief and this chimes with the narrative of martyrdom in Bulgarian history around figures like Vasil Levski and poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev. The titles of her books, Apostle of Freedom, Freedom or Death, For Freedom or Perfection speak for themselves.

Now nonagenarian MacDermott chose her Bulgarian historical subjects because she felt they had reconciled a love for their country with a yearning for international brotherhood. In the spirit of internationalism our immigrant community in the village has people from all nations, Chile, Iceland, France, Ireland as well as England, Scotland and Wales but still the locals call us all the Anglichani, or the English. Maybe that is because of people like Runciman, Thompson and MacDermott who, through their love, passion and scholarship have carved a niche for the English in the Bulgarian psyche and helped to create such a warm sense of welcome from the local people in villages all over Bulgaria for their new "English" neighbours.

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