Once an Englishman in Zagreb, today a local through and through, Jonathan Bousfield is the perfect person to talk to about the similarities and differences between Croatian and British (alternative) culture.
A writer and journalist working in the field of tourism and culture, he was lucky enough to get to know Zagreb at a time when its underground features were just beginning to recover from the wartime and postwar depression of the 90s. He dived into the city’s scene and immersed himself in it, but his British background and writing skills allowed him to perceive it from a certain distance too, thus managing to paint a picture of the town characterized both by fondness and objectivity. Besides earning a living and enjoying peaceful family life with his wife and children, Jonathan Bousfield wrote the comic strip Crimson Lagoon with artist Igor Hofbauer, and also runs Stray Satellite (www.straysatellite.com), a blog dedicated to culture, history and the occasional bit of travel. In this conversation we only scratched the surface of his interests.
BK: When did you realize that you fell in love with Zagreb (and Croatia) and decided to be here all the time?
Jonathan Bousfield: I don’t think it’s possible to really love any city or country, not even your own; liking it enough to feel comfortable is probably sufficient. I was travelling around the region as a student back in the 80s and began to learn the language, although there was a long period after that when I didn’t use it. Then I started working for the Rough Guides, a UK-based publisher of travel guidebooks. Croatia wasn’t the first country I wrote about for the Rough Guides, but it became the most important, partly because it was the one I’d always wanted to do, and partly because the book turned out to sell more copies than any of the others I’ve written (I have also authored guides to Poland, Bulgaria, Austria, the Baltic States, for the Rough Guides).
With Croatian tourism becoming more and more popular, we kept on publishing more and more updated editions, so I ended up spending more time in Zagreb and less time in London. And because I’d started learning Croatian several years earlier, I never felt as if I wasn’t going to be at home here. Another reason for feeling at home here is less obvious (indeed I was surprised myself when I realized it): I was born and raised near Leeds in northern England, a city that is roughly the same size as Zagreb, offers similar cultural possibilities, has a similar balance of urban beauty and ugliness as Zagreb, and which has a similarly long tradition of punk, post-punk and alternative rock. In that sense, Leeds and Zagreb are more similar than you might think. I grew up watching bands like The Clash, Gang of Four and Joy Division, bands that have always been cherished by a certain section of Zagreb society.
BK: That was supposed to be my next question… When we were at your place I noticed the record by local alternative band Trobecove krušne peći. As you seem well informed, I’d like to know what did you find original in Zagreb in terms of music and culture in general?
JB: When I came to Zagreb in 1999, I stayed for a few months for the first time. Almost immediately, I found out about the club called Močvara through a friend and became a regular visitor. I guess a large portion of people which I know in Zagreb were among those first visitors of Močvara. I was already feeling old among them, because I was in my middle-thirties at the time (laughs). But I came across some important characters there – everyone from folk singer Dunja Knebl to visual artist and singer-songwriter Milan Manojlović – Mance (described as “hardcore version of Arsen Dedić“, ed.). If I had to pick some of the best concerts I’ve seen in Zagreb, Mance’s gig at Močvara in 1999 would definitely be at the top of the list. I also got to know Igor Hofbauer at Močvara or I was at least familiar with his early work. At the same time I started going to KSET – it was the period when Mate Škugor was in charge of the concert programme there so you could always rely on seeing something really challenging – from alt rock to free jazz. So it was kind of prepared path for me!
BK: How did those various activities reflect on your work?
JB: Writing guidebooks for a publisher like Rough Guides has always been pretty cool in the sense that they encourage the author to pursue their own interests. So I had the luxury of indulging my own cultural obsessions as well as writing about the professionally important stuff – such as visiting lots of restaurants and bars. Nowadays mainstream travel writing is more commercialized, the individual character of the author is much harder to spot and, indeed, it’s much harder to ascertain which authors really went to the places they are writing about. The main thing for me is to write about Croatia and other countries of Central and Eastern Europe as if they are real contemporary countries full of relevant contemporary ideas rather than just a collection of monuments and tourist-tailored leisure products. And I ought to mention here that I was lucky enough to write for Time Out Croatia for several years and they were totally open to my suggestions about covering art and culture. I also write about cultural history for other publications or simply stick my texts on my own blog-site.
BK: How did you end up working with Igor Hofbauer as a scriptwriter for comics?
JB: Simply because I knew Igor and was an admirer of his graphic style! The original idea was to produce a story that would bring out the best in his noir, sci-fi, and frequently grotesque way of drawing. The initial plan was to do a short narrative about a dystopian tourist resort about two pages long, simply for the sake of doing it. It was only later that various elements of storyline started to fit in and a serial sprang up. So we ended up with something that was twenty pages long. So, several years after the original idea, three episodes of Crimson Lagoon were finally published in Globus magazine in August 2015. And there are more stories in the pipeline. Igor recently published his self-scripted book of comic strips under the title Mister Morgen to considerable critical acclaim. Igor is too often pigeonholed as a poster designer or a drawer of comics; I’m convinced that he is in fact one of Croatia’s greatest storytellers.
BK: Why did you decide to settle in this part of the town?
JB: My wife bought a flat in Martićeva just before we got together, so naturally I moved in with her! We’ve been here for nearly five years now. Martićeva is an interesting area because it represents so many stages of Zagreb’s development all in one street, from nineteenth-century apartment blocks to twentieth-century modernism – and includes at least two bona fide architectural masterpieces (Drago Ibler’s “wooden skyscraper” and Ivan Vitić’s “multicoloured skyscraper”). Before I started living in Martićeva, I frequently visited Booksa, which I tend to do less now, simply because it’s so near to my house that it no longer feels like a ‘going out’ destination. A few years ago Booksa was still the only place of its kind on Martićeva, although it has since been joined by Divas, Blok bar…
BK: I remember when Divas opened up, I went there just to read their vast collection of old issues of Nomad magazine…
JB: Yep, Nomad is another thing that summed up Zagreb in the late 90s. When I first came here in the 1980s, Polet was the magazine that covered youth culture in a contemporary and iconoclastic way. During those days I also used to travel to Ljubljana and buy Mladina, which was essential reading if you wanted to understand local culture AND politics too. When I came back in the 90s, Nomad, Moderna vremena, Godine Nove, (Arkzin had already stopped coming out, I think…), were all trying to keep those traditions going. What’s interesting is how so many of those magazines were designed by Dejan Dragosavac Ruta, who almost singlehandedly shaped the visual identity of the alternative cultural scene. People who wrote for Nomad practiced the kind of cultural journalism which was open, questioning and critical rather than being either too intellectual or too PR-driven. Which is the kind of thing we need more of nowadays.
BK: Did you hear any particular anecdote about your surroundings that you’d like to share with us?
JB: The building we live in was designed by modernist architect Milan Žerjavić, who also designed some of the apartment blocks along ulica grada Vukovara, the neighbourhood where Orson Welles filmed exterior scenes for The Trial in the early 60s. When a BBC interviewer asked Welles why he chose Zagreb as the location for his film, he replied that Zagreb evoked an atmosphere of “rather sleazy modern, and those curious decayed roots that ran right down into the heart of the 19th century”. So it’s rather nice to be an inhabitant of what Orson Welles sees as “Sleazy Modern”. In fact why bother with a Design District when you could have a Sleazy Modern District instead? A Sleazy Modern District would certainly open up a lot of possibilities…