Caribbean Beat Magazine

The King and I

Peter Rickwood encounters royalty

  • Illustration by Christopher Cozier

Indulge my political correctness, if you will, and call me a republican, although the two countries of which I am a citizen, Britain and Canada, share a monarch and I don’t recall Cromwellian urges to have her expire.

The only republic I’ve lived in is Trinidad and Tobago and I guess that doesn’t count because, as a non-voting resident, I have as much impact on its destiny as a coconut washed up at Manzanilla.

Nevertheless, the notion of royalty as a symbol of maximum leadership sticks in my craw. So it is with a degree of trepidation I report that I’ve been hobnobbing with a king.

Yes, a real King, ermine, sceptre and orb for all I know, certainly a crown – well, now he’s exiled. Yet when I try to find words to describe him, “humble” and “man of the people” come to mind.

Simeon Saxe-Coburg, King of Bulgaria, is a scion of the royal houses of Europe, a veritable chip off the old block, a bad choice of words if you consider that’s where a number of royals have lost their heads.
His life illustrates just how dodgy it is at times in European history to wear a crown. After the World War II German occupation of his former kingdom in south-eastern Europe, Simeon’s father King Boris III mysteriously died, reputedly poisoned by the Gestapo. Simeon, then seven years old, was crowned king.

A year later, in 1944, after a communist coup, a Stalinist regime set about liquidating most of the country’s leaders and intelligentsia, including his uncle, the Regent Prince Kyril.

The lives of King Simeon, his sisters and his mother, Queen Joanna, were spared. Perhaps there was intercession with Stalin by his wartime allies Britain and the US, perhaps not. The family went into exile in Egypt and later to Spain.

I knew nothing of this when I met King Simeon as we sailed down Europe’s River Danube, participants in a shipboard symposium organised by the Orthodox Church, bringing religious leaders, scientists and environmentalists together to develop mutual responses to the river’s environmental problems.

We’d both been swept up in the remarkable renaissance in the Danube where, despite cyanide spills, cruise missiles and political intransigence, the unstoppable force of ordinary people has been released and demands the river’s protection.

Old foes, who used to glare at each other from opposite banks of the river, are now working together to address the legacy of environmental damage from decades of destructive human activity. The King has become an unofficial ambassador for the activities; I’m involved in making a documentary film about them.

Under communist rule, nature conservation was taboo, the King says. Along the Danube’s course through Bulgaria, for example, most of its marshes were drained. The results were the collapse of a vibrant fishing industry, huge increases in pollution flowing into the Black Sea, and a decline in Bulgaria’s drinking water reserves, to the point where they are now among the lowest in Europe.

It should be pointed out that the Danube fared little better in the countries of western Europe through which it flows.

Bulgarian communism imploded more than ten years ago, taking with it assassins who silenced critics with poison-tipped umbrellas and other arcana of paranoia with which the state surrounded itself.

But even though there’s a segment of Bulgarian society that adores him, and perceives him as an island of integrity and honesty in a sea of corrupt politicians, there is no suggestion that King Simeon II’s sights are on his old throne.

King Simeon is a gentle and slightly self-effacing man, who is not afraid of expressing his delight nor anxiety, and like all of us, is somewhat surprised and a little awed at what is happening in the Danube today.

“We, the people of southeastern Europe, are beginning to work together. People can move mountains,” he says. “In 10 to 15 years time you are going to see a very different river here.”

It is hard to imagine that the brownfields of rusting Soviet-era industrial development, which punctuate the lower Danube’s banks, will become “a green valley.” But the King is convinced that they will.