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February 1, 2023

Nigel Townson, Director of the British Council Romania : The Significance of Cultural Relations between Romania and the United Kingdom

Firstly, what do we mean by cultural relations? At the British Council we have an official definition, as follows: Cultural relations is the building of engagement and trust between people of different cultures through the exchange of knowledge and ideas. This is a short and simple statement, but it encapsulates just why the cultural relationship between our two countries has been so significant over the past 135 years, particularly, although not exclusively, during the politically turbulent years from 1938 to 1990.

I have chosen to focus on those years because it is when nations are politically distant that the power of cultural relations is most in evidence. In fact, the British Council was formed in 1934 as a direct response to the rise of right-wing extremism in Europe, its aim being to provide what as then termed ‘cultural propaganda’ in countries where freedom of speech was curtailed and the persecution of minorities was rife.

The British Council opened its doors in Bucharest in 1938 just as British-Romanian relations were about to reach their lowest point. Our long-standing alliance, founded on the marriage of Queen Marie to King Ferdinand, faltered at the outbreak of World War II. It is true that the United Kingdom and Romania ended that conflict as allies, but ideological differences then kept the two nations at arm’s length for the next forty-five years.

Yet throughout that difficult period, when mutual distrust was the default position of our respective governments, cultural relations kept alive the flickering flame of friendship. For many observers, the 1960s and 1970s represented the nadir of political distrust between Romania and the United Kingdom, and yet the exchange of knowledge and ideas thrived. Academic exchanges were plentiful (mostly Romanians studying in the UK, but with a few return visits) and arts events of the highest quality brought each country’s achievements to the attention of the other. In 1964 London hosted the George Enescu International Festival and this played to packed houses and received extremely flattering reviews. Mircea Basarab, Director of the George Enescu State Philharmonic in Bucharest appears to have been the darling of the press and, in turn, was delighted with the reception the music and the musicians received. In the spirit of cultural reciprocity Henry Moore’s sculptures were exhibited with great success in Romania in 1966. In both cases, cultural exchange was the vehicle which allowed us to undercut policy differences and learn about each other’s culture, without political or ideological interference.

It is also worth noting the potential for sport to make cultural relations impact, and it is cited alongside music as an area where the Romanians had a growing reputation in the 1960s. In an internal British Council memo in 1969, R. Brash writes warmly of recent success by the Romanians. ‘Romanian achievements are steadily becoming better known in Britain. Sometimes the process has been spectacular, as when the Romanian tennis players beat us in the Davis Cup or when Mr. Radu Lupu defeated all opposition to win first prize at the Leeds International Pianoforte Festival this year. The ability of the Romanian Football Team to force England to a draw at two matches last winter created a profound impression in this country.’ Indeed, as England were reigning world champions at the time.

I gained personal experience of the power of cultural relations to build engagement and trust when I was visiting lecturer at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj at the end of the 1980s. For my students of English, I was the only window on the world outside Romania. For me, my students were the real face of Romania, one which extremely few of my compatriots were able to see at that time. If you go back to the beginning of this text and re-read our definiton of cultural relations, then this is just what we mean by that.

These days, our political alliance is strong again and there are relatively few barriers to physical and cultural movement between our countries. Thousands of Romanians study in the UK, millions more are learning English and enjoying our music and popular culture. At the same time, albeit more slowly, Romania is becoming more familiar to my compatriots. It boasts extraordinarily beautiful and varied landscapes, it has a uniquely creative film industry, and I know from my own experience that its people are gracious and generous hosts who are proud of their heritage.

It is, I suppose, possible that our relationship would be just as strong now even if the British Council had not been active here during the years of the Cold War, but I sincerely doubt it. In the 1990s our excellent relationship with the Ministries of Culture and Education was built on the foundations that had been laid during those years of political mistrust. We were received with open arms when we wanted to reform the teaching of English because we had built up trust over decades, not because we came with a blank cheque (we didn’t). The work we did in the arts during that decade was also the result of relationships formed over the previous thirty years. Even now, I come across people who tell me with pride that they were members of the British Council library during the time of Ceausescu, and that we were their only connection to the world outside Romania.

Cultural inquiry and exchange, in a nutshell, is what has maintained the warmth of the relationship between Romania and the United Kingdom, even when the political temperature was well below zero. That is the significance of cultural relations.


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