Eastern Europe

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ICC Press Release 002

In Complete Circles: The Memoirs & Travels of an Ageing Schoolboy…

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Memoirs Part V: A Bird in the Hand

Peri - the joys of being a young Dr Who fan in the mid-80s

[“Bushmen of the Kalahari”][/caption]

It wasn't just Zammo...

“Places to avoid include almost all of Co Tyrone, which has so many non-descript, grim one-horse towns you can hear the collective hooves clop from across the border in Donegal. I have found next to nothing to see or visit in that county”

Henry McDonald, the Guardian’s Ireland correspondent

Henry McDonald, Tyrone’s version of Salman Rushdie will probably have no interest in the fact that I grew up in the largest of these grim one-horse towns.

It was the early autumn of 1986. For the first time in their history Tyrone were in the All Ireland final against the mighty Kerry. There was much excitement, and the school could claim a few past pupils among the Tyrone players. That summer I’d spent three weeks in Donegal at an Irish language college, supposedly learning the niceties of the Irish language. I shared a room with three chancers from Greencastle and Carrickmore called Bradley, Teague and Hughes. It was a rite of passage for many Irish schoolchildren. The place was called Machaire Rabartaigh (or Magheroarty) on the rugged north-west coast of the county with a view of Tory Island – the island whose name bizarrely became the alternative moniker for the British Conservative party – in the distance.
How ironic that the political party of the British establishment, a club of Old Etonians and aristocrats should be named after a windswept treeless island off Ireland’s rugged Atlantic north coast.

One of the big chart hits that year was the anti-drugs song “Just Say No” by the cast of the then popular TV series set in a London secondary school Grange Hill. You can see the video here.

I watched it for the first time in over 20 years and found it to be so embarrassingly cringeworthy – the hairstyles, the clothes, the music – it was almost painful to look at. At least it was all for a good cause.

One of the leading characters Zammo had become a heroin addict, a storyline devised to discourage young people from going down that route.
I even got to meet the boy who played Zammo and his screen girlfriend Jackie when they visited the local leisure centre as part of the town’s annual arts festival. I was the proud owner of another celebrity autograph to add the collection alongside that of former Dr Whos Peter Davison and the late Jon Pertwee as well as that of international footballer Pat Jennings.
There was even a boy at school nicknamed Zammo in honour of the character. I don’t know what became of him, but I’m sure he didn’t follow in the footsteps of his Grange Hill namesake.

The Dr Who Years
A small group of us ran a Doctor Who fan club – or appreciation society as we preferred to call it – chiefly organised by an older boy called Mark Doherty, a martial arts enthusiast, and an amateur photographer/film-maker, who in a few years time would go on to forge a successful reputation as “DJ Marco” on the local disco and hospital radio circuit . His highly original nickname was “Doc” – as was the case with virtually every other boy at the school called Doherty – and there were quite a few. Nicknames, not surprisingly followed a general pattern you see. If your name was Murphy, you’d be known as Smurf. If your name was Brian O’Donnell you’d be called Bod. If your name was Seamus O’Connor you’d be referred to as Soc and so on. But most nicknames simply just involved adding a Y or an O to the individuals’ surname . Another club member was a more anarchic lad in the same year as Doc called Brendan Bankfield, whose highly imaginative nickname was Fieldy. He had an explosion of upstanding hair and was studying art, drawing inspiration from the morbid, gothic imagery of heavy metal album covers. He showed us one of his masterpieces. As homework the art teacher had set the class an assignment entitled “Back to school – an environmental study”. Fieldy’s interpretation of the theme was a boy in school uniform hanging by the neck from a tree, with his tie as the noose.

Our club meetings were held Friday afternoons after classes had ended in the school lecture theatre. We would watch old Doctor Who episodes of very dodgy quality. These generally came from friend of a friend of a friend an uncle of a colleague of a friend of a “contact” who knew someone who worked in the BBC archives department and had smuggled out illegally copied videotapes of old episodes . So what we were watching was effectively a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy (etc) on videotape. These were the days before digital recording technology, DVDs and downloads. Or alternatively if you had penfriends in Australia which was several years behind in the episode schedules they could send you tapes.
We would have debates on who the best Doctor was, quizzes where we would impress each other with knowing who the second boom microphone operator on Terror of the Zogdats broadcast on the 12th of March 1967 was. We were basically a bunch of nerdy 13-year olds who attracted much derision from our classmates.

It should be noted that Doctor Who was not the big budget, highly popular and successful phenomena it is now. Back then the original series was dying a slow painful death and was considered very uncool. But part of me enjoyed being on the receiving end of the derision. Part of me revelled in the nerd tag. I felt I was part of an elite minority. It would take a few more years to realise how deluded I’d been.

It wasn’t the sort of hobby you would hope to meet girls through.

However, one of the main attractions of Doctor Who from an adolescent male point of view is the high quality of the lead character’s young female assistants. The girl in the role back then was certainly no exception. She was a whiney American called Peri who often wore low cut tops exposing ample amounts of cleavage. A cynical ploy on the part of the production team to boost the already flagging ratings of washed-up TV show in terminal decline no doubt – but we weren’t complaining.

One particular teacher, TJ O’Loughlin took an interest in our club. He would occasionally pop his head around the door to lend us some moral support, impressed that we were doing this through our own intiative and without any outside interference. But he would deliberately keep his distance so as not to be seen to be interfering.
He was one of the last of a dying breed, the genuinely eccentric teacher. I suppose every grammar school must have had one or two of them back in the day. Something of a renaissance man, he ran the school chess club, worked as a part time attendant at the local swimming pool and was an occasional actor with the town’s drama society.

He once challenged the whole class to a bet about cannibal chickens – which he won and pocketed his winnings.
He was a regular visitor to Eastern Europe in the days of the Iron Curtain and one of his claims to fame was that he was one of only two men in the town who could speak Polish. Since the expansion of the European Union and the movement of labour from east to west I’m sure the town has at least a few dozen Polish speakers these days.

Since retiring from teaching he’s become a prominent spokesman for minority rights. An interesting career move to say the least.

Such was his influence on a generation of pupils that the former head boy Sean Daly at the 1993 prize-giving night paid tribute to “our swimming French teacher who has since followed in a different dimension”.

At this time one of the popular playground games was the rather sadistic and violent “killerball”, a variation on the less harmful game of handball. About 20 boys would stand beside the wall of the school. A small rubber ball would be thrown against the wall with great force. If it hit you on the rebound you would get a kicking. It was the element of living dangerously that appealed, something that many of us would get addicted to over the coming years. But that’s another story altogether…

From Sarajevo to Stormont

There’s an article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs (“The Death of Dayton”) on how the fragile peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina following the Dayton Agreement is under threat from the unstable form of government in the country:

“To prevent any one group from dominating, quotas were adopted in national institutions.
…each representative can veto legislation that he believes undermines his own group’s vital interests. As a result, almost every important issue at the central government level is deadlocked.”
“Almost every public office – including low level public administration jobs – is allotted according to an ethic quota, a spoils system that has led to extensive patronage networks, corruption and inefficiencies.”
“With 160 government ministers and a bloated public sector that gobbles up nearly half of the country’s GDP, the framework is tailor made for those who wish to stoke ethnic antagonisms for political gain. These ethics chauvinists – in particular, Dodik and Silajdzic – preach to their respective constituencies and pledge to “protect” their groups. This in turn weakens moderates who advocate greater national unity and civic, rather than ethnic indentities.”

Sounds depressingly familiar to somewhere much closer to home…

Eoghan Harris makes another “balls-up”

Talking out of his Harris

Talking out of his Harris

I’m not a regular reader of the sensationalist fascist rag known as the Sunday Independent (the Irish paper that is – not to be confused with the English Independent on Sunday which is almost at the opposite end of the spectrum even though they share a common owner).  However one of my local pubs has complimentary copies – useful if the toilets run out of paper.  Anyway I was in one particular establishment watching Tyrone beat Armagh in the Ulster Championship.   I will concede that its GAA coverage is good – rather ironic considering that certain columnists on other pages have an aversion to the association and view it in a similar way to which the Ku Klux Klan view people of dark skin pigmentation.

One particular columnist Eoghan Harris churns out the usual bullshit.  I don’t pay much attention to what he says as it’s mostly arrogant, self-opinionated bollocks anyway, but if it’s factually inaccurate it’s worth noting.   He’s been called many things over the years by other bloggers, such as Infactah, Cedar Lounge, Maman Poulet, Green Ink, Associate Notes, Tangents  and Adam Maguire – most of them fairly accurate. 

In the wake of the Ryan Report detailing cases of abuse of children in the care of various institutions of the Irish Catholic church, Harris touches on Fianna Fáil’s (at worst) alleged complicity with the church or at best its failure to come down on the church harshly enough.  He cites a story from the 1950s which would seem to contradict this notion.  A certain bishop had urged football supporters to boycott a match between the Republic of Ireland and Yugoslavia because of a cardinal imprisoned by Tito for alledgedlt being a wartime collaborator.  It seems however that the cute hoors of the Soldiers of Destiny went against the bishop’s wishes:

“far from bowing to the archbishop, the prominent Fianna Fail shadow minister Oscar Traynor threw in the ball to start the match at Dalymount Park on October 19, 1955”

Although Eoghan obviously likes his detail right down to the exact date of the match, this couldn’t possibly have happened, as he makes a glaringly obvious error.  It looks like he’s getting his ball games mixed up.  As any schoolboy knows soccer matches start with a kick-off, not a throw-in.  At the start of Gaelic football matches the ball is of course “thrown in” by the referee. However I’m pretty sure there were no GAA teams in Tito’s Yugoslavia. 

So not for the first time Harris is (quite literally!) talking balls. I’ve written a letter to the editor pointing this out (albeit in a more subtle and diplomatic manner), but won’t be holding my breath regarding publication next Sunday.

A Fang-tastic time in Transylvania…

Autumnal woodland in the Carpathian Mountains

Autumnal woodland in the Carpathian Mountains...but all those long bus journeys were a bloody pain in the neck. Cue eerie, deathly silence punctuated by the swoosh of tumble weeds in the whistling wind and the distant clanging of a funeral bell…then the shouts of "get off!" just before the bottles start to fly...I’ll get my coat.

When in Rome…except this is Romania.  A statue of Romulus and Remus with friendly wolf in Sighiosoara, one of many such monuments dotted across the country, where Romanians pay tribute to their Latin heritage.wolf1
Vlad "The Impaler" Tepes, the sadistic Transylvanian aristocrat who was the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula


Right: Statue of Vlad “The Impaler” Tepes, the sadistic Wallachian aristocrat who provided the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.


Below: Romanian fishmongers are brutally honest about the quality of their merchandise.  Yes, “crap” really is the Romanian for carp

Below: Amazing transformations will take place when you swim in this pool…


Below: Communist era apartment blocks in Clujcluj1

Below: the medieval old town square in Brasov, a legacy of the Saxon occupation of Transylvania – or Siebenburgen (Seven Towns) to give it its German name


Below: Memorial to the struggle against communism (1944-89)in Brasovmemorial

cluj21 Above: Orthodox cathedral, Cluj

Below: the cross at Bran Castle

crossbranBelow: The legacy of Ceaucescu – one of many abandoned factories scattered throughout the Romanian countrysidefactory

catAbove: Since finding a cat that looks like Hitler in Sarajevo in 2006, it’s been my ambition to trawl Eastern Europe for other felines resembling European dictators.  Admittedly the above specimen from the Carpathian mountains looks nothing like Ceacescu, Stalin or Tito, but I like the picture nevertheless

Going East/Vampires and stuff

I won’t be blogging for another week or so, as I’m off to Romania on a jolly romp to see what’s going on down Transylvania way.  Not that I blog that much anyway, so you probably won’t notice the difference. 

Anyway, the garlic, crucifixes and wooden stakes are all packed and ready to go.

Been practising the language a bit.  Not that difficult really – you can almost get by speaking Italian with a slavic accent.

O sticlă de vin roşu de casă va rog.


La revedere for the moment!





I recently entered a travel writing competition run by a Sunday paper.  However I wasn’t successful, so I can do whatever the hell I want with the item I wrote.  It’s an account of my trip to Sarajevo, acompanied by two friends, Ian and Phil during the summer of 2006.  And here is an edited version:




Pulling into Sarajevo train station as dusk approaches after a tiring 10-hour journey from Zagreb, one could be forgiven for thinking it’s not worth a stopover Miles of sprawling ugly Soviet-style tower blocks so typical of the suburbs of many Eastern European cities do little to encourage the potential visitor. But once you’re in the heart of the city, you find it has a rough charm which really catches the imagination.
Sarajevo is a curious mixture of east and west. For centuries this city has been at the confluences of two great cultures, at the western extremity of the Ottoman and the eastern extremity of the Austro-Hungarian empires.
It’s been over a decade since peace returned to this region, but the scars of war are everywhere, albeit in a subtle way. Market stalls sell intricately carved trinkets – pens, ashtrays, plates – fashioned from spent bullets and mortar shells. It’s not hard to find a building still pock-marked with bullet holes. Also on sale are Turkish rugs and ornately crafted metal coffee pots and pepper grinders. Mosques and churches rub shoulders in this proverbial melting pot of cultures, but the city has an unmistakeable European flavour
Some women choose to wear the traditional Islamic head scarf and some young men sport Islamic-style beards, but their ethnic origins are most definitely white European and the majority of Sarajevans prefer the western dress style. The city’s focal point is the Bašcaršija bazaar, a Middle-Eastern style market place where there’s a casbah style café in which you can smoke hookah pipes and drink the notoriously thick black Turkish coffee which is standard fare in this part of the Balkans. Ask for a coffee in Sarajevo and you get a tiny cup containing a thick tar-like brew – what’s generally known as a Turkish coffee, ie black coffee with much of the water boiled off to strengthen it. Elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia you will be given a standard espresso as is the norm in most of continental Europe.  Ubiquitous in Bosnia and Herzogovina is the Greco-Turkish style kebab of miced lamb in pitta bread. 

Quite by chance we stumble upon a plaque which commemorates a historic event. The bridge where the Archduke Ferdinand, Emperor of Austro-Hungary was assassinated in 1914, the catalyst for the Great War which would rage for another 4 years and result in countless more deaths.


That night the beer flows. We’re sitting outside the trendy Bar Havana in the old market place. Despite the rain, it’s a lively, atmospheric spot. A talented chanteuse belts out cover versions of Tina Turner, The Police and Van Morrison songs.
In the green area of parkland adjoining the grounds of the National Museum (unfortunately it’s closed as we arrived too late in the afternoon) is the abandoned wreck of a military helicopter, presumably a relic of the old Yugoslav army, now a sort of unofficial museum
exhibit come work of modern art sprayed with graffiti. We’re along one of the city’s main thoroughfares, a long wide road leading to the railway station where our adventure began. Just across this road is the distinctive yellow tower block of the Holiday Inn, where journalists from around the world lodged during the war.

The city is surrounded by steep craggy wooded hills, the perfect terrain for an army wanting to put a city under siege.
At the railway station there’s a battered metal sign, reminding all and sundry that this city was the venue for the 1984 Winter Olympics – the mascot of a cartoon wolf and the Olympic rings against a blue background liberally dotted with rust and what appears to be the odd bullet hole.
Our lodgings are in a private house owned by an entrepreneurial local who rents us a room for the sum of €10 a night. We’re on a top of a steep hill which has panoramic views of the city. Further down the hill is the “Hotel Sarayevo”, probably more luxurious than our lodgings, but considerably more expensive and no doubt with a less spectacular view. The Sarajevo skyline is dominated by apartment blocks and the tall slender white minarets of mosques.

As the evening sun casts long shadows over the streets, some old men are playing chess with giant pieces. It seems so peaceful here now. Swallows swoop low over the shallow narrow Miljacka river. It has the air of a sleepy provincial town rather than a capital city. I could easily spend the rest of the summer here.




Mother Russia’s Forgotten Children

On the recommendation of Chekov from Three Thousand Versts I’ve just borrowed Lost Cosmonaut by David Kalder from my local library. Kalder, a young Russian-based Scot styles himself as an “anti-tourist” and goes off in search of obscure Russian republics very much off the beaten backpacker track. So little is known in the west about the now independent former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan (apart from the false impression given by Borat, the odd Olympic medal-winning Graeco-Roman wrestler and a few cyclists like Alexandre Vinokourov who occasionally do well in the Tour de France), Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgystan and others. But even less is known about the semi-autonomous republics within the Russian Federation such as Tatarstan, Udmurtia and Kalmykia. Kalder deserves credit for visiting places no-one else wants to go to, which partially explains his fascination for them. I share this urge, myself, but to a much lesser degree. When I told friends a couple of years ago that I would be summer holidaying in Latvia and Lithuania, I was greeted with bemusement or “what do you want to go there for?” The simple answer is “because they’re there”.

Despite being rich in history and culture, Kalder’s destinations are distinctly unglamorous locations with little to do or see. Kalder makes no secret of this. The cultures of these regions have been heavily diluted following an intensive Russification policy at the behest of Stalin. Ethnic Russians were encouraged to move here and heavy industries were set up so the regions, rather than Moscow and its environs would bear the brunt of pollution and environmental degradation. However it’s the hidden heart of these regions which particularly fascinates him.

One frustrating thing about this book is the lack of a map to show where these places are. The reader is unable to get a clear idea of their location within the context of Russia or their proximity to neighbouring countries, mountains or coasts.

Nevertheless Kalder’s style is entertaining. The book does have a collection of photographs, mostly of dreary buildings and local curiosities which add to the book’s post-modern ironic tone. Kalder has also done his homework on the history of the places he visits. It’s certainly an innovative style of travel writing and one that looks set to be copied by others.

Budapest Winter

Left: The Chain Bridge over the Danube by night

Below: A view from the hill of Buda overlooking Pest across the Danube. The dome in the background is the Cathedral of St Stephen’s Basilica

I visited the Hungarian capital shortly before Christmas with two friends.  As the photographic evidence attests.

Below: The view just to the left of the above picture.  The dome to the left of the picture is the Parliament building