Response to Kapka Kassabova and Dylan Jones

01/12/2008 by Christopher Buxton

It all depends on where you are sitting

In the last few days three articles have appeared in the UK press that reflect on contrasts between culture and experience in Bulgaria and the UK.

In ‘Britain is scarier than Bulgaria’ appearing in the Sunday Times on November 23rd, the Bulgarian born writer and poet Kapka Kassabova draws an uncomplimentary comparison between the lawless streets of weekend Edinburgh and the quiet boulevards of Sofia where the only night-time disturbance comes from stray dogs and pensioners scavenging through rubbish bins.

The stimulus for this article may in part have originated in a question raised by a reader at the Sozopol Literary Festival presentation of Kapka’s Kassabova’s latest book Street without Name. Upset by “Chalga blaring out from every restaurant” and horrified by the indignity of being served by a “dark faced gypsy in a local café” the reader wanted to know how Kapka reacted to the “awfulness of everyday life in Bulgaria”. Instead of the expected dose of Bulgarian O Tempora O Mores, Kapka treated the woman with the lightning sketch of life in a UK city which she has since worked up into her article. Key features are drunken youths, urine soaked streets, smashed cars and the threat of a bottle in the face of any resident brave enough to come out and remonstrate.

This picture of life in the UK will come as no surprise to any British reader, who from the comfort of his breakfast table is treated to apocalyptic stories of national decline in the Daily Mail every day. In Britain as in Bulgaria petty crime is actually falling, but the impression fuelled by dramatic headlines is different. The real target audience for this article I suspect is the Bulgarian reader who believes that Bulgaria is uniquely miserable and does not want to hear even from compatriots that life anywhere else could be worse. The UK is civilized. They live like white men there.

Editor of GQ, friend of David Cameron and Jeremy Clarkson, author of Mr Jones’ Rules for the Modern Man, Dylan Jones is undoubtedly a white man in every Bulgarian sense of the word. In December 1st’s Spectator article: ‘How I became Bulgaria’s etiquette guru’, Jones celebrates his welcome to Sofia where his opinions were sought on every topic including the competence of the British Prime Minister. Jones goes on to describe his wonder at finding himself a hero in a land that “looks like Birmingham” but contains sufficient Berbatov look-alikes to benefit from his sartorial advice. To the Bulgarian media – hungry for his every word – he is comfortably patronizing. Not everyone looks like Borat.

Jones has read Misha Glenny and knows about Bulgaria’s corruption problems. Bulgarians know as much about corruption as Daily Mail readers know about drunken crime. On the other hand as Jones has discovered Bulgarians are also impressed by dazzling success. Media and telecommunications mogul Spas Roussev appears in Jones’ article as a glittering socialite and more importantly publisher of Jones’ book. The fact that Roussev represents with all his extravagant wealth the aspirations of Bulgaria’s nouveau riche is good enough for the editor of GQ magazine. Therefore he is described as obviously a great man. .

Bulgarians probably know a lot more about Spas Roussev than does Jones. In 2002 Roussev hosted a cards party on his yacht in Monaco. Players included the then Minister of Finances Milen Vulchev and the now assassinated gangster known as the Doctor. The card game became emblematic of Bulgaria’s mafia problems.

But then the lesson from these two articles is that particular point of view is everything – whether you are flying into Sofia on a ten-seater NetJet Falcon or you are negotiating streams of urine in Edinburgh. Living in corrupt but cheap and relatively petty crime free countries has been fine for countless British ex-pats. They can sun themselves, drink cheap beer and complain about the natives while thanking their stars that they have escaped rat-hole Britain. Only a few will wake up one morning and find they have been conned out of their money and property and that there is no recourse to a legal system because they are dealing with powerful locals who are better connected.

This is precisely the experience described in a 25th November Guardian article with the headline: A ski resort, a lost investment, and a Bulgarian murder. British Nicola West has lost her money and all hope of a dream home in the ski resort of Bansko. On top of that she has been assaulted by a mad property agent. The Bulgarian lawyer in the case shrugs her shoulders and says “C’est la vie.”