Selected as a Book of the Year in the TLS and Spectator
The final decade of the Cold War, through the eyes of a laconic and elegant observer
In 1979 Richard Bassett set out on a series of adventures and encounters in central Europe which allowed him to savour the last embers of the cosmopolitan old Hapsburg lands and gave him a ringside seat at the fall of another ancien regime, that of communist rule. From Trieste to Prague and Vienna to Warsaw, fading aristocrats, charming gangsters, fractious diplomats and glamorous informants provided him with an unexpected counterpoint to the austerities of life along the Iron Curtain, first as a professional musician and then as a foreign correspondent.
The book shows us familiar events and places from unusual vantage points: dilapidated mansions and boarding-houses, train carriages and cafes, where the game of espionage between east and west is often set. There are unexpected encounters with Shirley Temple, Fitzroy Maclean, Lech Walesa and the last Empress of Austria. Bassett finds himself at the funeral of King Nicola of Montenegro in Cetinje, plays bridge with the last man alive to have been decorated by the Austrian Emperor Franz-Josef and watches the KGB representative in Prague bestowing the last rites on the Soviet empire in Europe.
Music and painting, architecture and landscape, food and wine, friendship and history run through the book. The author is lucky, observant and leans romantically towards the values of an older age. He brilliantly conjures the time, the people he meets, and Mitteleuropa in one of the pivotal decades of its history.
If Oscar Wilde was correct that "history is gossip," then Bassett serves up a delicious cocktail of the very best kind-polite, learned, and insightful, merely leavened with touches of history and geopolitics, making one thirsty for more. ... A memoir can breathe life into history, and this is indeed Bassett's achievement as he breathes new life into shattered kingdoms, their now-moldering cast of characters, and all of the fascinating stories that would otherwise vanish with them.
Richard Bassett's spirited memoir of ten crucial years in recent European history is full of insights into the last days of two empires: the Habsburg, whose embers he savours beautifully, and the Communist, which he vividly shows us collapsing in front of him. The book is charming and funny, but it has a serious purpose, lightly worn, and a flavour all of its own.