The Dubrovnik Summer Festival is coming to the end of its 69th edition and for over a month a lot of interesting artists have visited Dubrovnik. One of them is Simon Mundy – a writer from Britain and Vice-President of PEN International — Writers for Peace, Bled and sometimes – a journalist! He started as a director and then moved into writing in his 20's. He spent 20 years combining being an art journalist and writing books and poetry. Then he started the European Forum for the Arts and Heritage (now Culture Action Europe). He has worked a lot with UNESCO, especially with the Council of Europe on Culture and Conflict areas, particularly in the Balkans and Ukraine. Now he lives in Scotland and spends a lot of his time writing books, but he found the time to visit our beautiful city and sharing interesting details about his life and his impressions about Dubrovnik and the Festival.
You dedicated your life to art and culture?
It's the only thing I'm good at! My mother was a painter and my grandfather was a writer. I'm useless when it comes to anything else – if you ask me to administrate anything, it will be illegal in two weeks. (laughs)
That kind of life has taken you all around the world?
Yes, I suppose. My son, who works for the United Nations, and I have a joke that he’s working for all the countries that I haven’t.
Why did you come to Dubrovnik?
I’ve been an adviser to the European Festivals Association for years and I've been doing a profile on Dubrovnik for them. They wanted to talk to me about general issues. While I was there, I decided to resurrect to my old career and cover it for one of the newspapers in Britain.
How did you like your experience? What did you see, what did you do?
I went to events every night. Some good, some bad, which is normal for a festival. I didn’t do too much sightseeing because it was definitely a work trip, a very pleasant trip, but not a pleasure trip.
What did you like the most about the Dubrovnik?
I had some delicious meals which were quite excellent and it was, oddly enough, quite fun to sit in the cafe’s, just watching the hordes of tourists come by. I felt like a local, I rather sat, watching them, thinking: ‘’I’m so glad that I’m not on that cruise ship!’’
You mentioned you enjoyed the food, do you have some favourite dishes?
I always upset people in the Balkans saying that I prefer both Italian and Turkish food to Balkan food. I find food in northern Croatia and Slovenia far too heavy and Germanic and Austrian. I much prefer it down south, when you got the olive oil, better wine and good salads. Generally, the further south I go along the Adriatic, the better the food becomes. And the wine is stunning!
What was your favourite part of the Dubrovnik Summer Festival?
The highlight of my visit was the concert at the Rector’s Palace by Andreas Scholl and Ensemble 1700, where you basically had nine soloists plus Scholl, who are to an extraordinary standard. To be that close to them, in that environment with surroundings that were previous to the time of the things they were performing, was a real joy!
Andreas Scholl performing in the Rector's Palace - Photo Dubrovnik Summer Festival
Your impression of Dubrovnik Summer Festival is positive?
It’s a wonderful festival and it’s been a wonderful festival for many, many years! Like the city itself, it had some difficult moments, but I think it’s one of the ten most important festivals in Europe and I think it will continue to be that. It’s a place which has such an extraordinary history and such great venues and has absolutely no problem getting people to it. That combination is a winning formula!
How were you greeted in Dubrovnik? What do you think about the locals?
I’ve never found anything but enormous welcomes in here in many, many years I’ve been coming here. I think that perhaps there is a difference now compared to 25 years ago, even 15 years ago, when I was here before. There was a sense of 1980’s and the break-up and the war. It felt like people needed you to understand how hard things have been. Now, when Croatia is in the European Union, when everybody moves without visas, it seems that many of these issues have gone away or are much quieter than they were. I find people much more relaxed than they were.
How would you compare modern day Dubrovnik to times gone by?
I was first here with the Council of Europe in 1993 and then I was back again two or three times in the 90’s. The last time I was here was in 2003. Even then, since it was before Croatia joined European Union, things were pretty tough. But they were getting back to normal and you got the sense that countries around also were beginning to re-join the family of nations in a way. Now, Croatia has really improved.
Do you like coming back to Croatia?
I like bits of Croatia very much indeed. I like its coastline, but I’m still not a complete convert to the interior. I think everywhere, from Pula down to border is fantastic. I like Opatija, which I think is an extraordinary city, very Austro-Hungarian, Rijeka too is amazing. I’ve never been to Split, which is weird, but it’s one of the way things work out. People invite you to the places and they haven’t yet invited me there!
Do you have any future plans regarding Croatia?
We’ll see! I’ve got no long-term plans, but that’s typical when being a writer.
Is that good or bad?
It used to make the rest of my family very nervous, but it never made me nervous because things generally do happen. Sometimes they’re bad, but then something else happens – good, and things go right again.
Catching the summer sunshine in Dubrovnik - Photo Ivana Smilovic
You are quite a positive person?
At times! I can get gloomy like anybody else. I’m a poet and that’s normal for them.
Do you have to be gloomy when being a poet?
You can’t just write gloomy poetry because people would soon get bored. Some of my poems are gloomy, but you also change the way you write over the years. When you are young, you usually write either how beautiful the view is or why doesn’t that girl love me? As you get older, you tend to write about other things as well.
Do you get inspired by the places you visit?
Less and less. Now I’m mostly inspired with stories. As you get older, your poetry becomes more narrative and less personal. Personal in a different way.
Do you write everywhere you go? Did you write anything in Dubrovnik?
I don’t usually write in the places I’m visiting. I usually leave the whole thing for when I’m back home or the next place. A picture appears in my mind in a month or so later and the poem comes out. I haven’t written anything in Dubrovnik, but that’s not the end of the story!
Everything you write comes from your experiences?
No, I don’t think it does, I think it comes from your imagination and you use experiences as ammunition. You’re not necessarily drawing the material in a direct way, you are making it up all over again. I’m not one of those writers who over-research. I’m odd, I wrote poetry, novels, books on musicians, a bit of politics… You use information in different ways but most of the time you’re telling stories and most of the time you’re making them up. You are using all your material in a way that would be deeply frowned by academics and journalists.
Can you compare the job of a writer and a journalist?
Apart from the deadlines and the fact that journalists get paid slightly better… I think the real difference is that you have to check your facts in journalism and you don’t have to check facts as a fiction writer or as a poet. You are entitled to get things wrong and make them how you want them to be. I think when you’re doing a piece of journalism too, you owe it to the reader to have the same qualities as a writer and to tell the story, because it’s all storytelling, sooner or later. But you also have the different responsibility – to do it with integrity. Actually, when you’re writing a poem or a novel, your only duty is to yourself and to your vision and what that should be. That’s nobody else’s business. And the reader can then do the same, to bring their own experience and change it all over again.
So, you prefer being a writer?
Actually, I enjoy doing both. But it’s quite important not to mix the two in the same piece! If your piece of creative writing comes out as too journalistic, then actually you lose the reader very quickly. You can always see when writers over-research and they feel like you need to put every detailed that they discovered, after around 100 pages of that the reader just goes: ‘’I don’t care! I know you’re clever, I know they gave you a grant to go to that place, but I don’t need to know that.’’
One of the greatest benefits of your job is to travel around?
Well, you sort of have to. You go where people want you to go, you almost never go on holiday, you just go where the work takes you. That’s great, but it’s hopeless if you’ve got small children, relationships and all the rest of it. But if you’re a free man, then that freedom is worth having. But it does mean it leaves gaps. Because you don’t go where everybody else goes. Everybody else has been to Canary Islands for their holidays, but I’ve never been there.
Do you think that people understand that you are actually working?
No, they don’t actually. In London I’m a member of the Chelsea Arts Club which was founded 120 years ago who got sick of the fact that everybody in the local pubs asked what artists did in the day time. It hasn’t changed! As a writer, they think you’re on permanent holiday and they don’t get the fact that you turn out your 700 words a day, whatever happens. There’s always been a tension between people who move and people who don’t. Most people want security and they want that security in something that they think they can understand, like a place they call home, that they own. Not just in the terms of a house, but in terms of its culture. Then there are those of us who don’t think like that, who move and think it’s a round world and we should keep going around it. I see countries as just places, some nicer than others, some with better food, some are hotter, some are colder. They are places, they are all different, but they all got the same characteristics as well: how did they start, why are they here, why are the way they are…
You have a lot of experience, do you think that Dubrovnik is on the right path?
I think it has to even things out. Everything is always in transition and will change again in 15 years, but I think there are two things that it needs to decide: one is whether it just wants to be a mass tourist destination and if not how it’s going to get out of that. The second thing is whether it wants to be a little bit different from the places up and down the coast and even in Dalmatia. What’s its relationship with other cities? Does it want to be something like it used to be? I think the sense of Dubrovnik as a city-state has never quite gone away, I don’t think that people here see themselves like ‘’normal’’ Croatians.
I think that Dubrovnik should start thinking: ‘’Ok, how do we get in the 21st century?’’
Should we aim to show Dubrovnik as a unique destination?
Yes, not to the extent ‘’let’s have Republic again’’, because the last thing this region need is to split even more. But I don’t think there’s any harm at all in Dubrovnik and other places along the coast just reaffirming to the modern world that they’re not just provinces of modern nation states and that they do have a history which is different, interesting and is worth developing. I think that Dubrovnik should start thinking: ‘’Ok, how do we get in the 21st century?’’, being interesting and free and humane and a refuge and an intellectual hub and not provincial city of the modern state. That’s what I think Dubrovnik needs to do. I don’t think it’s there yet… I think it needs to get its self-confidence back, by that I don’t mean its self-confidence in terms of the infrastructure, you’ve done that and it’s very good, I mean its intellectual self-confidence.