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Imaginary country

The land of Morbia was revealed to me in a dream

The mind of a freelance writer is a mess of anxiety about deadlines and money at the best of times, and December is not the best of times — it’s busy, I’m behind on buying Christmas presents and the tax man is sending me text messages urging me to get on with my accounts.  Last night my subconscious decided to remind me to get on with the book I am supposed to be writing. The book is about European borderlands, and I have been distracted by other subjects from the sublime to the ridiculous, from an old Doctor Who story to the state of British politics. So it was, in another dimension of consciousness at around 3am, that the land of Morbia was revealed to me in a dream.

I was in an antiquarian bookshop and I came across a drawer full of old papers. One was a general map from about 1930 of a central European country called Morbia, located somewhere vaguely east and south of Germany. Another detailed map showed a border area where a railway line ran across Morbian territory on its way from one German town to another, passing through a German-speaking town called, I think, Bechterfeld within Morbia. I grimaced. This was not a good arrangement with which to head into the 1930s. I leafed through the papers a little more, marvelling at the design of railway and opera posters from the golden age of Morbian modernist graphic art, and frowning at a placard from the later 1930s: Save Morbia! The short slogan was written in German, Czech and the Morbian language, the westernmost script to use the Cyrillic alphabet.

I decided I really had better look into the history of Morbia, as I hardly knew anything about it. I was delighted to discover that most Christmas traditions originate there — decorated trees, holly and warm alcohol have been associated with the season in Morbia for centuries. Good King Wenceslas is generally regarded as a Czech appropriation of a story of goodwill and generosity previously associated with one of the less frugal margraves of Morbia.

Its commercial classes were mostly Germans and Jews and its administrators Czechs

Some historians believe that there was once a large Morbian empire, but the evidence for this has always been sketchy and the first reliable records from the 14th century describe it as a vassal state, its relative independence varying according to how much money the local duke owed the Polish King or vice versa. The capital Zhabgorod (Krötenhausen to the many Germans who settled here in late mediaeval times) was a flourishing trading centre, built around its grand arcaded market square. Morbia’s loose attachment to the Polish crown ended as the result of a dynastic marriage. The marriage itself did not affect Morbia’s status, but during the bacchanalia that followed it, the Polish King Jan XIII “Pechowy” challenged the King of Bohemia to a game of cards with Morbia as the stake, and lost.

Morbia’s national “rebirth” came in the 19th century, when it was an autonomous, not to say neglected, province of Austria’s sprawling empire. After the unsuccessful revolution of 1848, romantic young Morbian aristocrats turned to literature. The epic poem “The Stork and the Birch Tree”, ostensibly about the beauty of the Morbian countryside but actually full of allusions to the plight of Morbia under the Habsburgs, is taught to every Morbian schoolchild: verses 1, 5 and 73 together form the national anthem. Morbia’s industrialisation was slow. There was a popular joke among Zhabgorod intellectuals about a left-wing pamphleteer from Vienna who was stopped at the border and asked by the guard to explain socialism. “It, sir, is the struggle between the forces of productive labour and wealthy capitalists.” “Well, then,” replies the guard, “you may proceed. We have neither of those things in Morbia.”

Morbia gained independence in November 1918 when, before heading to the station, the Austrian governor handed over the keys to Zhabgorod Castle to the leader of the main nationalist party. The event is now recalled as the Morbian Revolution. Allied diplomats at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 were not convinced by the assertion that the eastern suburbs of Vienna were actually “integral Morbian territory” and drew a considerably smaller state, whose outline disappears into a fold in many contemporary maps. Even so, like nearly every other “nation state” in the region, Morbia was almost as variegated as the wicked old Habsburg “prison of nations” — it had three “state languages” and at least four “official minority languages”. Its commercial classes were mostly Germans and Jews and its administrators Czechs, while Hungarians ran most of the restaurants. It could have been worse, as father of the nation General Lukas Bebok quipped once, “we could easily have had Czech cooks and Hungarian civil servants.”

Independent Morbia started with a federal parliamentary system of bewildering complexity, but in 1922 President Bebok was voted full executive powers. For people who had grown up under the benign gaze of statues of Kaiser Franz Joseph, it was reassuring to be governed by a whiskery chap with medals who looked good on horseback and had a sense of fair play. Bebok enjoyed, if passively, the historical good fortune of a lavish state funeral in 1937. Professor Oskar Ropucha, dean of linguistics at the university, was prevailed upon to become interim President, but then nobody else fancied the job and he stayed in place until the end.

COVID seems to have killed off the cheap flight from Stansted at the crack of dawn

The obscurity of civilised little Morbia did not protect it from the terrible history of the mid-20th century. The published results of the 1946 election were satirically awarded the Morbian Literary Guild’s prize for fiction, and the Literary Guild and all other non-communist organisations were dissolved in 1947. Communism gave Morbia the biggest ball-bearing factory in Europe; its workers’ football team won several European championships in the 1970s. After the mid-1960s cultural thaw, Morbian intellectuals would gather at the Café Zweig in Zhabgorod and write densely allegorical works about the dictatorship — the most celebrated such novel, The Ball-Bearing Mousetrap, was told from the point of view of a large ginger tomcat. People in Prague still use the term “like a Morbian film” when encountering something particularly abstruse and nonsensical. The first post-1989 President was a dissident poet, but he lost the 1994 election to a reformed communist, who in turn lost the 2002 election to a populist nightclub bouncer turned inexplicably wealthy “businessman”.

Some people in London still remember the Morbian exiles of the Cold War era. Their community was concentrated in a couple of streets near Barons Court tube station. The government in exile was run from Professor Ropucha’s high-ceilinged, pipe-smoke scented flat in a grand but flaking stucco-clad terrace. There was a newsagent by the station that sold occasional copies both of the official Krasna Mórba newspaper and an exile paper produced in the suburbs of Chicago. The restaurant “Pád Ropucha” served Morbian delicacies such as eel dumplings to the homesick exiles and their friends. A bottle of the best Ogienvoda, the (usually illegally) distilled spirit of Morbia, was reserved behind the bar for the not infrequent visits of Professor Norman Stone, who considered himself a great friend of the Morbian nation. In the 1990s, one would still run across Barons Court Morbians at meetings of the Freedom Association, but nobody has seen them for a while.

I must have been to Morbia in my travels. I think I climbed the castle hill in Zhabgorod and looked out from a ruined tower over the city and the mountains. I stayed amid the fading Art Nouveau glory of the Hotel Vienna, and looked dutifully around the National Museum which occupies one side of Bebok Square. Perhaps I had too much of the cheap and surprisingly strong Morbian beer, because my memories are dim, and I have saved my photographs somewhere inaccessible. I must go back sometime, although COVID seems to have killed off the cheap flight from Stansted at the crack of dawn.

Information about Morbia is hard to obtain online or even in reference books. It sometimes seems as if the place has slipped from existence, and sometimes that it never really existed. Can such an obscure, implausible and self-contradictory set of stories really be taken seriously? Then I ask myself whether Morbia is significantly more fictional than any other nation, and I fall back asleep.

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