Contemplating diving into Rebecca West’s great Balkan travel adventure, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, is like contemplating a long bungee jump. It offers both compulsion and revulsion, but once it is attempted, endured, enjoyed, you will live with the thrill of it for ever. I recently spent two months reading it, as slowly as I could, and when I finished I felt I had done the journey myself.
The book was published, in the middle of the Second World War, in two fat volumes. Adorning the first volume of my set, neatly stamped between Belgrade and Skopje on the invaluable route map on the front endpaper, and cruelly disfiguring the Dalmatian coast on the vital political map decorating the back endpaper, is the dread imprint ‘Discarded Shropshire Libraries’. That any library should have wantonly thrown out such a book is a shame, for it provides an intensely personal yet universal insight into the conflict engulfing the world at that time and one that Western decision-makers would have done well to read in the 1990s.
Black Lamb is both a marvellous recounting of hundreds of years of history and a brilliant modern travelogue. In 1937 Rebecca West and her banker husband Henry Maxwell Andrews travelled for several months in the Balkans. Their journey covered thousands of miles and encompassed Ljubljana, Zagreb, Susac, Split, Dubrovnik, Mostar, Kosovo, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Novi Sad, Pristina, Peć, Skopje, Lake Ohrid (which, cartographically at least, nudges both Albania and Greece), and a hundred towns and villages in between. They visited monasteries, Roman ruins, sacred places, ancient battle sites, churches, mosques and street markets. They met gypsies, Byzantines, comic Nazi spies, pedagogues of all levels, doctors, beggars, exotic dancers, restaurateurs, shepherds, peasants, giants, disenfranchised Musselmen, dogs, goats, horses and an occasional chorus of chambermaids, wise washerwomen, monks and assorted irreligious types (even, at
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in