April 2018


The Cellist of SarajevoA violinist was playing in the subway on Baker Street Station. He had positioned himself at the corner of the space where the stairs from the Metropolitan line met the escalators that descended to the Bakerloo and Jubilee lines. I could not name the piece he was playing but it was so poignant I stepped out the flow of commuters rushing like ants through the tunnels, leant against the wall and listened. It felt like a refuge, a moment of peace among the mounting chaos and insecurity of our collective lives.

I thought of the Cellist of Sarajevo, the subject of Steven Galloway’s recent novel. During the four year long siege of that once beautiful Bosnian city, ringed by hills, a sad looking man with tousled hair and dressed in a dusty full evening dress suit, stepped into the market square at four o’clock every afternoon, positioned his stool in the bomb crater and played Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor. He has been playing the same piece in a window overlooking the square when a mortar bomb exploded outside and killed 22 people queuing for bread. He had stood motionless at the window all night and for most of the next day. Then at 4pm, he carried his cello into the square, and began to play He continued to do this every day for the next 22 days, one day for each victim. People stopped and listened, oblivious to the risk from snipers and shelling from the hills, and for a brief time forgot about the war. Then he got up, gathers his stool and his cello and walked slowly to the door of his house and disappeared. He could have been killed by the men on the hills besieging the city or any of the snipers sent to infiltrate the population, but he wasn’t. On the last day, he picked up his stool, tossed his bow on to the pile of flowers that people have placed at the spot and went inside for the last time. The Cellist of Sarajevo is a work of fiction, but is based on the courage of Vedran Smailovic, who had played for the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Sarajevo Opera before the war.

The Balkans have been in the centre of conflict since Greco-Roman times. For many years part of the Roman Empire, then part of the Ottoman Empire, then the Austro-hungarian Empire, it was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo that precipitated the First World War, firstly as a conflict between Serbia and Austro-Hungary, then between Russia and Germany; finally Britain and France were drawn in because of their alliances. Under the Treaty of Versailles, the Balkan States were subsumed under a single nation, called Yugoslavia (southern Slavs). During the Second World War, the region was occupied by the Axis powers, but it regained its independence under Marshal Tito at the end of the war and was drawn into the orbit of the Soviet Union as a client communist state. When Tito died in 1980, old nationalist ambitions resurfaced. Serbia had ambitions to reunite the country under their control, but Bosnia-Herzegovina and other Balkan states including Croatia and Slovenia, which had a sizeable Serbian population resisted.

The Seige of Sarajevo

Bosnia declared independence in 1992 and almost immediately were attacked by Serbian forces. Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia; a modern city with a population the size of Bristol, was besieged for four years, much longer than Stalingrad and Leningrad 50 years earlier. The Serbians set up artillery positions in the hills that ringed the city and sent snipers into the city to terrify the population. 11,000 defenders were killed. There was scarcely a house that was not damaged or destroyed by bombs. The main targets were the hospital, government buildings, schools and libraries. The images of high rise buildings on fire resembled the recent Grenfell Tower disaster in London. All services, electricity, water supply, sewage and transport, were cut.

Steven Galloway’s book charts the life of three of the inhabitants during that time. Arrow is a Bosnian sniper who has been ordered to protect the cellist from Serbian snipers sent in to kill him, but she ultimately becomes a target of her own side when she refuses to fire on Serbian civilians. Dragan is a baker, whose family have managed to escape to Croatia, leaving him behind. Kenan runs the gauntlet of sniper and mortar fire every day to cross the river to get water for his family and the elderly widow, who lives in the same block of flats. Life for the 400,000 or more people living in Sarajevo was a matter of life and death every single day.

Galloway’s characters are based on real people, worn out by war, fearful of what might become of themselves and their families. Only the cellist and his music bring hope and respite from fear. For a brief moment every day, it seems that mankind is still capable of humanity and the war has not destroyed everything.

In the last two years, London has been the scene of random terrorist attacks, creating a low level sense of anxiety every time I go down. The music in the underground helps to reassure. Everybody should stop and listen for a few minutes.

 

Alarmed by the atrocities committed by the besieging Serbian forces and what resembled ethnic cleansing, the United Nations joined the conflict in 1996 and bombed the Serbian positions. Eventually a peace treaty was signed giving autonomy to Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovenia and Macedonia. The only state not given nation status was Kosovo and this remains unresolved. The Serb leaders were tried for war crimes at The Hague and sentenced to life imprisonment.

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ball-tampering

Bowler Cameron Bancroft and captain Stevie Smith at their news conference in Cape Town.

It took but a moment. During the lunch break, several senior players hatched a plan. The fall guy was their new fast bowler, Cameron Bancroft. They persuaded him to smuggle a piece of sticky tape onto the pitch and apply it to one side of the ball so that it would pick up dirt and make it swing more in the air. The problem was that the sticky tape was bright yellow and his actions were witnessed on screens all round the world via a host of television cameras. According to the rules of cricket, a player is not allowed to tamper with the ball to gain an unfair advantage. This includes abrading one side with a fingernail or dirt in the pocket or rubbing it on the ground, through strangely spitting on the ball to dampen one side and buffing up the the other side of the ball on the trousers is allowed. It all seems a bit arbitrary. But in cricket as in life, players must play by the rules.

Cricket Australia reacted swiftly. With one test match left to play in South Africa, they recalled Smith, the captain, Warner, the vice captain, and the bowler, Cameron Bancroft.  It was only after they returned that they realised the enormity of their crime. Smith broke down in tears in front of the world’s media; he had let himself, his father and everybody else down. Australia lost the last match by 322 runs.

Bill Shankly, the manager of Liverpool FC during their glory days, once said, ‘Football is not life and death; it’s more important than that’. He was right. The identity of thousands of fans are invested in their team and its players, but for Australia, cricket carries the identity of the whole nation. Cricket is the national game. More respect is afforded to the players than to the Prime Minister and members of his government. We all know that politicians can cheat and lie; it is part of the job, but cricket is an honourable pursuit. Even the poms can criticise the Australian government, but heaven help them if they slag off the Australian cricket team. Australians are very proud of their team; not just because they are such dedicated and skilful players, but because the Australian team, unlike other nations, are thought to play the game fairly according to the rules.

So, by cheating, the players have not only shamed themselves, they have shamed a whole nation. Australia is no longer that pure, uncorrupted, sunlit island in the southern hemisphere; they are cheats, like everybody else. No wonder there has been such a storm of anger in the Australian media.

Sport is a metaphor for society. And society has to be run according to rules. If those are flouted, then the society collapses into meaningless anarchy. Although cricket is ‘only a game’, it means so much to so many people that the players have to play fair. If they don’t, what is the point of playing? Not only Australian Cricket, but the whole game worldwide becomes meaningless. Millions of fans who believe in the integrity of cricket no longer have any anchorage of identity. Yes, indeed, cricket is more important than life or death, it is about meaning and identity.

The psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein, wrote that at about the age of 2 or 3, children reach what she called ‘the depressive position’, when they first realise they are not the centre of their own universe; there are others to consider and they can’t do just what they want. This might also be called ‘the stage of disillusion’. She added that we may continue to encounter the depressive position many times throughout life, especially when we are encouraged by our achievements and the admiration of others to feel that sense of hubris or false pride. But pride always comes before a fall.

Australia’s cricketers are folk heroes with almost god like status. Worshipped by a whole nation, they may come to believe they can do no wrong, as long as they keep on winning. No doubt Smith and Warner felt that with a crucial test series against South Africa in the balance, winning was so important that the risk of cheating was worth taking. Maybe their hubris was such that they thought they were beyond reproach. How wrong they were. The higher our heroes climb, the harder they fall. Smith and Warner have gone from hero to zero in less than a day and only Bancroft may be excused because he was younger and in thrall of his seniors.

Is this just a sign of the time? Are we living in a time of such scepticism, when a reality television host and self confessed sexual opportunist can become President of the United States, while here in the UK, we read every day about the incompetence of our leaders, the corruptness of the police and judiciary, the mistakes of the health service, the irrelevance of the royal family, and only a minority of people believe in God.

There is more outrage over the latest incident of ball tampering than there was in 1994 when that icon of the game, the English captain, Michael Atherton, was observed to be rubbing dirt from his pocket on one side of the ball. He was fined £2000 but was allowed to continue as captain. I am not sure Smith will be as fortunate. Perhaps we need our heroes too much these days. If they cheat, then it means that we no longer trust the integrity of the players and will have to rely increasingly on technology. Freed from the obligations of honour, players will be forced to find ever more inventive ways to break the rules. And that my friends, will not be cricket.