ISSN 1759-2836 (online)
In 2006, Manchester bookshop manager Anthony Shelmerdine fulfilled a promise made to his grandfather – to return his ashes to Požarevac, the place of his birth. He was accompanied on his poignant journey by a BBC crew who filmed this unique story.
Britić: How do you see yourself? Anthony the Serb? Anthony the Briton? Or someone else?
A: Genetically I am clearly not ‘Anthony the Serb’ as I am only a quarter Serb by blood, but I believe that an individual’s cultural identity isn’t determined by genes alone, but by a range of factors, and in that sense I suppose I could be ‘Anthony the Serb’.
I consider myself to have ‘English’ rather than ‘British’ blood so the tag ‘Anthony the Briton’ isn’t really appropriate; I have finally settled on the slightly ridiculous term of ‘Anthony the Anglo-Serb’.
My Serbian cultural identity and the strength of love I feel for her people have been forged by two periods of war, namely WWII and the destruction of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The Second World War robbed my grandfather of the country he loved, his family, friends, possessions and his inheritance. I truly believe that by proxy WWII also stole something from me.
The Balkan conflict of the 1990s coincided with my formative years. The negative and dishonest representation of the Serb nation by the Western media made a deep impression on me, but instead of feeling repulsion or shame it made me feel more proud of my Serbian heritage and less like an Englishman.
To those who say I’m only a quarter Serbian I say that it is what you feel in your heart that defines you. Can I help considering myself closer to Serbia than England? It raises many questions about identity in the UK. English identity has been eroded through fear of upsetting the sensibilities of recent immigrants. In Manchester we do not celebrate St George’s Day (the English national saint) yet we have a St Patrick’s Day festival (Irish national saint) as well as Ramadan, Eid (both Muslim), Diwali (Hindu) and many others. This suppression of ‘English’ national identity helped to push me into the welcoming, and culturally rich, arms of the Serb nation. An average Englishman (or woman), myself included, could not name a national dish, song, dance, or folk story, whereas I can make ćevapi, sing Tamo Daleko, dance a kolo, and tell tales of Kraljević Marko. Perhaps people should be questioning that rather than underlining my genetic make-up?
Britić: How do the rest of your family react to your pride for your Serbian heritage?
A: My family fully support my Serbian pursuits no matter how bizarre they may appear. They see me as having an opportunity of feeling something that they sadly missed out on. My mother Radmila has been a source of constant encouragement. She always watched my TV appearances, listened to my radio interviews and read all my newspaper articles and letters and gave me a brutally honest diagnosis. Even when she finds the finer points of international law with regard to Albanian separatism in South Eastern Europe difficult to fathom, she always concludes that if I am saying something, then it must be right (she says this tongue in cheek and we both laugh).
After arriving in England my grandfather Zoran did not maintain much contact with Serbia or Serbs in Manchester. He was so young when he left Serbia and had great difficulty coping with the loss of family and friends. The dream of a return to Serbia was a distant one because Tito was so firmly ‘enthroned’. Talking to Serbs about Serbia made this acute pain grow and grow until he finally decided to stop the torture and let his children grow up in Manchester as UK citizens who happened to be 50% Serbian. Hence, despite being given Serbian names and being baptised into the Serbian Orthodox faith, my mother and uncles lost their cultural identity and became wholly assimilated into UK society. It would be easy to criticise my grandfather’s decision but we all deal with trauma in our own personal way.
My love of Serbia makes me something of a family oddity, the product of Serbian identity skipping a generation. My sister Emma has no interest in Serbia although she loved Zoran no less than me. Quite by accident, she lives a five minute stroll from the Church of St John the Baptist in Halifax but the only time she set foot inside was when I tried to awaken her sleeping Serb.
Zoran was always worried that my vocal Serbian leanings would offend my father, however, God has blessed me with a very understanding father who is proud to have a Serbian son and is supportive of my chosen path. He’s a big fan of šljivovica and would happily change his nationality if it guaranteed him a constant supply. We only ever come into conflict when Serbia and England cross paths on the football pitch!
Britić: When did you go to Požarevac with Zoran’s ashes?
A: It was 2006 when I fulfilled my promise and returned Zoran home. After liaising with the Serbian embassy the BBC obtained flight documents and police permission to transport Zoran’s ashes. Yet on our arrival, in true Serbian police fashion, we had a run-in with a policeman at the airport despite having all necessary official documentation – signed by the Chief of Police! Here I was with the BBC (the oldest and most respected TV station in the world) trying to make a thought-provoking documentary about the land of my grandfather and the first Serb we met at Nikola Tesla Airport was a foul-mouthed, xenophobic, overweight, obstructive policeman with delusions about his level of authority. I lost my temper, not because he was stopping me taking Zoran home, but because he was just another example of how insular and thoughtless certain Serbs can be. He almost single-handedly destroyed my achievement of successfully convincing the BBC that the negative image of Serbs portrayed in the Western media throughout the 1990s was nonsense. Would the BBC lose heart and fly home? Would they now have footage to support the incorrect notion that Serbs are xenophobic? Our director Phillipa Bradley understandingly pointed out that all nations have idiots within their ranks and most of them happen to be policemen. She brushed off this incident and made what I believe to be a positive and true account of Serbia.
We moved on to Požarevac to bury Zoran’s ashes. The family grave was in a terrible state as the rent had not been paid for some time. I bought the grave, though it looked more like a jungle, and had it cleared of all manner of trees and shrubs and then we made arrangements to bury Zoran with his family. I wanted a priest to be present but the Church refused because Zoran had been cremated. This seemed strange as the Serbian Orthodox priest had been present at his cremation in Manchester and had taken money to perform the traditional rites …a rather typical example of the vagueness of our religion. In Manchester there is a plot for Serbs in the very large municipal cemetery; it is sad to see how many of these fellow Serbs were laid to rest so far away from their native soil.
Whilst in Požarevac, we filmed at the National Museum which was founded by Zoran’s father, Professor Nikola Bošković (my great grandfather), who also excavated Viminacium near Kostolac. This ancestor had an exciting life. Born into poverty he was hidden by monks at Dečani after an incident in which he wounded a Turk; here he learned to read and write, and after fleeing to Serbia became a teacher. He was sent to Požarevac where he became a professor. He personally bought books and stationery so that poor children could be educated and was awarded the Order of Saint Sava for his services to education. Zoran told me that during WWII he was due to be shot by a Partizan firing squad but among the soldiers were some that had been educated at my great grandfather’s expense so they let him escape.
Britić: How often do you go to Serbia?
A: I try to visit Serbia every year. My friends have travelled the world seeing exotic places in the Far East or the wonders of North and South America. However, Serbia is the only country that I want to visit and I want to see every inch of its land. I studied history specialising in Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire. Both these empires left an imprint on Serbia south of the Dunav. This influence, together with the glories of the Nemanjić dynasty, supplied Serbia with such a wealth of castles, churches, monasteries, palaces, and authentic villages that I really feel no need to visit anywhere else to immerse myself in my favourite pastime of history and culture.
Of course the real reason for my yearly visits is to visit my relatives and to recharge my Serbian batteries so to speak. I always stay with my Uncle Nenad’s family in Beograd and I truly feel at home. My cousin Vesna speaks good English and works for the Tourist Organisation of Beograd. She has visited me in Manchester and I am trying my utmost to get her brother Miloš over for a Manchester United match.
The country is a traditional and close society that I am glad to be part of. Whilst the English are also hospitable, their reserve can give the impression of coldness. The family unit in Britain has truly broken down with far-reaching effects. Where do you gain love, values and respect if not from the family you are part of? I see this as part of the reason why Britain has a major problem with crime. In England most families eat as a family only once a week (the famous British Sunday roast dinner) but in Serbia it is a joy to eat as a family on a much more regular basis. When I stay in Beograd we eat together every evening and we talk, laugh, and feel close together.
The youth of Serbia are upbeat and positive about the future. Serbia has a tiger economy and enjoys the boost in national self esteem that comes from the sporting successes of Đoković, Ivanavić, Janković and others. Beograd is a lively, forward-looking city with a night life better than almost every other European capital. The world-famous Exit festival draws young Europeans to Novi Sad to sample the true face of Serbia. The brass festival at Guča is becoming a cult outside of Serbia and a glowing reference.
I do feel, however, that all Serbs share a collective national obligation, above all, to help their brothers and sisters who suffered in Krajina, Bosnia, and Kosovo and Metohija; some Serbs are sadly neglecting this duty. It hurts me to see wealthy Serbs strolling up Knez Mihailo throwing money around in expensive boutiques when there are fellow Serbs living on bread and water, and little else, who have lost everything. Shame on those people who got rich in the 1990s and imitate what they believe Western life is all about, i.e. greed and image. I have actually met Serbs who resent the refugees as if it was their own fault. The politicians seem more concerned with selling off what little Serbia has left at a knocked down price. Germany in the 1940s had difficulty conquering Serbia yet they seem to have more success in buying it.
Britić: How did the BBC come to make Anthony and Zoran’s Big Adventure?
I was reading a newspaper over an espresso when I noticed an anonymous advertisement seeking people with ‘interesting’ family histories. How could Zoran’s tale of youth, war and loss not appear like a Hollywood movie when compared to the dull stories of the minor celebrities on UK television? I phoned the number given and got through to the BBC! They saw my story as not only interesting but different and so I suggested they come along and share mine and Zoran’s adventure. Our collaboration was mutually beneficial; I provided them with an unusual story to document and they provided me with logistical help, 5 star hotels and an interpreter (given that ordering a beer presents me with enough problems, I couldn’t imagine grasping the regulations surrounding ownership of graves!)
The finished documentary was first shown on BBC4 in late 2006 and repeated several times. It was also used by the Open University as course material in their BA (Hons) in Family and Local History. Following a screening on BBC2 in October 2007 I received an avalanche of emails containing feedback and praise. From having only a few Serbian friends dotted around the world this led to my having many more from as far away as Canada and Australia. The praise and emotional messages were somewhat difficult to deal with as I hadn’t undertaken the project for personal fame or glory, simply as the best way to return Zoran home. Although I signed away my editing rights when I agreed to do the documentary I knew that the finished article was in safe hands with Phillipa Bradley directing it. She knew nothing about Serbia before our trip and I knew that this was ideal if Serbia was to be shown in her true light. How could the BBC not be won over by Beograd and her welcoming people? My instincts were proved right; the finished documentary portrays a fondness for Serbia that helps the UK viewer understand what draws me there. It could have easily portrayed me as a confused and rudderless oddball, instead what you see is that the love I felt for Zoran is the love I feel for Serbia... Zoran is Serbia and Serbia is Zoran.
by Antonije Shelmerdine Bošković