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Five years in the making

Created on 18/04/2017 @ 05:39
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He’s well known to MyWelshpool readers having written a number of columns for us since he moved to the former Yugoslavia area several years ago.

John Bills has spent the past five years writing a book - An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery – which he hopes to launch this year, but he needs a helping hand.

John (pictured) has set up a fundraising page to make his dream come true and has written a new piece to tell us what it is all about:

I’m not entirely sure if my genuine intention was to write a book, but that is certainly what I liked to tell people. It sounds good, doesn’t it? Somewhere along the way my vague gambit became a reality. What began as a disparate collection of essays turned into a coherent piece of work, a focused love-letter to Europe’s largest ethno-linguistic group. The only thing that remained the same through the evolutionary process was the title - An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery.

I have been living abroad on a full-time basis for just over three years now, although that becomes seven years if we replace the ‘full’ with ‘part’. After graduating from Liverpool (no) Hope University I only had an existential crisis to deal with, so I gathered up my favourite t-shirts and headed east.

I started off with summers in Mostar (Bosnia & Herzegovina) and Belgrade (Serbia), followed those up with an 18-month stint in Ljubljana (Slovenia) before retreating back to Belgrade, the city that stole my heart and my glasses. Now? Well, now I’m living in Prague (Czech Republic), one of Europe’s most elegant capitals and a city that some of you may even have visited. It is a Bucket List city after all.

What do all of these countries have in common? You can draw whatever tenuous links you want, but I’m obviously going to go with the Slavic angle. The four countries listed above are joined by Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia (no, not Greek Macedonia), Montenegro, Poland and Slovakia in filling the box marked ‘Slavic Nations’, although I should also mention that Belarus, Ukraine and Russia are also in the same box. The Eastern Slavs are another story for another time.

As many of you may know, I’m a champion of the obscure. When my peers followed the fortunes of Barcelona and Real Madrid in La Liga, I firmly planted my Racing Santander flag into the ground. I genuinely think ‘St. Anger’ is the best Metallica album.

So what does championing the obscure have to do with the Slavic nations? What if I told you that Europe’s oldest vampire was Croatian? Or that the man who came up with the first illustrated children’s textbooks was Czech? The first woman to sail around the world on her own, Polish? The guy who started World War One, Bosnian?

Okay, so you probably knew that last one. The history of the Slavs is in many ways the history of Europe, but for reasons that seem beyond my comprehension the Slavs don’t seem to get the recognition they deserve. If anything, the opposite is true - most western folk think of the Slavs as lazy and depressed.

I’m not going to say that those stereotypes aren’t true, but we all know that you only have to travel as far as Kidderminster to see similar things in the UK. The Slavs have given the world more than many care to admit, whether through invention, dedication, or simply being really good at getting drunk and swimming the longest rivers in the world. It is high time they are given the respect they deserve.

Writing a book with the words ‘Slavic Misery’ in the title may not be the best way to go about it, but it is a start. The work on ‘AIHoSM’ (that isn’t going to catch on) began way back in late 2012 and finished in early 2017, giving me the slightly inaccurate freedom to claim that I’ve been working on the book for five years. It feels like a lot longer. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t working on this book.

Writing is a peculiar profession for those outside of it. Despite the trepidation with which most of us faced doing even short essays during our educational years, we hold these vast tomes in our hands and often think ‘it can’t be that hard’. It’s just writing, right? Let me tell you - writing a book is hard.

Writing a good book is another thing completely. Writing a complex piece of non-fiction even more so, as there are such irritating things as facts and sources that need to be considered. Writing 592 pages of non-fiction that is almost certainly going to encourage arguments from the very people the book is championing? Maybe fear is the reason it has taken five years to complete.

But if I described the experience of writing An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery using negatives, I would be lying. In school and university, we are often told about something called ‘lifelong learning’, and it wasn’t until I started taking this book seriously that I started taking that same idea seriously. I had no idea that soft contact lenses were invented in the Czech Republic, that the man who made long-distance telephone calls possible was Serbian and that there is a Polish guy who deadlifts cattle. I didn’t say that the information was particularly useful, but learning and growing come hand in hand.

I’m currently raising money to print the book, and I can guarantee that when this process is finished and I hold the finished thing in my hands I will cry real tears. I’m trying to raise £5,000 using a company called Kickstarter, which some of you may remember from Dai Robs’ album fund a year or so ago (Hi Dai!).

As of writing, almost half has been summoned from all the corners of the world - I’m almost halfway there.

I’m loathe to dredge up advertising slogans from one of the few supermarkets that didn’t make it to Welshpool, but every little helps. Kickstarter allows those raising money to offer a variety of rewards for those pledging, and those rewards can be found by following the link below. Just want the book? How about the book and a handwritten letter of thanks? For five pounds extra you can make that a drunken handwritten letter of thanks. It’s all there.

I could say that it is my dream to print a book, but that would be somewhat short-sighted. My dream is be able to do what I enjoy for a living and to make learning a little more accessible - printing a book about the wonderful Slavic people is a good place to start.

My fundraising campaign will run until May 12, and it is an all-or-nothing deal. Either I raise the £5,000 or I start doing focused research on selling my spleen. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that, and I can visit my much-missed (honestly) hometown with a sense of pride over the summer, with a book in my hand and a smile on my face, rather than visiting without a spleen and the bunting at half-mast."

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