Last Days in Old Europe by Richard Bassett

4 out of 5 stars

Europe in the 1970s and 1980s was still in the grip of the cold war. The Iron Curtain was very much closed and in certain cities, there was still an underlying paranoia about who was working for who. Richard Bassett was a staff reporter for the Times and he was there watching events unfold around him.

Whilst Trieste is still in Italy, it has a very different feel, the light in January is at its most intense after the Bora wind, it scours the sky and lends an intensity and clarity to the place. It is this light that welcomes Basset in 1979. It had not long been in Italy but an international agreement had returned it from Yugoslavia a few years before. Basset was there to write about the people and place for the Times. As he looked around the city, he could still find fragments of the Habsburg Empire that hadn’t been fully extinguished in 1918. He settles in fast, being welcomed in by the great and the good of that society, making friends he would have for a long time. Away from the echelons of Trieste was a different world, a blend of dialects and culture left over from the Hasbergs could still be heard.

His second appointment was in Austria, which at this time, in particular Vienna, was where some of the warmer parts of the cold war were played out. Its proximity to the Iron Curtain and an austere rebuilding after the Second World War meant that it felt frozen in time. It was a strange staid society, men with slicked-back hair spoke in a language that was both sophisticated and insulting at the same time. It took Basset a while to get used to it, but he reached the point where he could hold his own against them. It was a place utterly drenched in history, plaques denoting a plethora of famous people and their achievements could be found down most streets. He would attend parties and circulate with the upper echelons of Viennese society, but this charmed life had to come to an end, as the paper expected him to cross the Iron curtain to visit Prague and Budapest.

Life of the other side of the curtain was very different to what he had come accustomed to, highlighted by an elderly lady that he met on the train who for the first time was allowed to travel but as the conversation carried on, the limits of where she could and couldn’t go still were very apparent. Basset was in Warsaw at the beginning of 1989 and as snow fell in the city all he could think of was the warmth and sun of the Adriatic. Life was about to get much busier for this reporter though, change was in the air in the Soviet capital and he would witness events as they unfolded that would change Europe for a generation.

I really enjoyed this. Basset has managed to give a taste of what it is like to mix with minor royals and aristocrats that had no power left but still had oodles of charm. This way of life has almost entirely vanished now, and it had echoes of the Europe that still existed back in the time that Patrick Leigh Fermor walked through. He is a perceptive writer, almost certainly from his journalist background, but his stories of these European cities are full of characters and life. It feels like ancient history until I remember that I can recall details of these events as they unfolded on my TV screen and in the papers.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    That sounds like a very interesting one! I’m still wading through The Boundless Sea although with other amusements on the side. I hope I’ll have it finished to review in time for the Wolfson Prize!

    • Paul

      Gah I had forgotten about the Wolfson Tour!! Thank you for the reminder, Liz

      • Liz Dexter

        Oops! Have you got one to read?

        • Paul

          I had forgotten to download it. Now sorted

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