I recently spent an enjoyable 10 days In Cyprus. It reminded me of Ireland – a small island with a border dividing the north from the south, with a British military presence and two tribes separated by religion and flag – except that the Cypriot climate is a little warmer.
I’m relieved to finally announce at long last that my book In Complete Circles: The Memoirs & Travels of an Ageing Schoolboy has finally been published after almost two years of graft. Copies can be ordered from Amazon – which also lets you have a look inside. More extracts can be found on this blog.
“A comic and at times irreverent memoir of school life and adolescence in a Northern Irish town during the 1980s and early 1990s with accompanying rants on the absurdities of modern life, nostalgic reminiscences on the news events and popular culture of the era and the subsequent fulfillment of youthful ambitions through travelling, sometimes verging on the surreal. This book is part memoir, part travelogue. The chapters alternate between episodes from the author’s school days and subsequent travel writings (incorporating the Baltic states, Australia, New Zealand, Romania, Spain and Morocco) from several years later – but always with a connecting theme linking the two eras. Examples include a schoolboy fascination with horror films linking a visit to Transylvania, daily reports of the Balkan war during the author’s schooldays in the early ’90s linking a tour of the region 15 years later –and a childhood addiction to tangerines with dreams of trekking through the Sahara on camelback leading to a trip to Morocco.”
Thanks to all who provided me with the valuable support and encouragement during the writing of the book!
I landed at Belfast George Best airport on an icy Christmas eve afternoon, having just flown in from Stanstead. It was then that I noticed that the grounded Ryanair plane opposite the one I had just got off had laminated on its side an orange, white and green flag – ie that of the West African former French colony Ivory Coast – or to give it its proper French name Cote d’Ivoire
Unfortunately I don’t have a picture. I didn’t have a camera handy, but even if I had the chances are I would have been arrested on suspected terrorism/espionage charges as a potential spy for Easyjet. However the flag in question is illustrated below. As Ryanair just do short haul flights within Europe only, the Ivory Coast is somewhat outside its jurisdiction.
The only famous Ivoirien who springs to mind is the foul-mouthed, referee-abusing Chelsea centre forward Didier Drogba. A man who’s not short of a shilling or two. Is it possible that he’s done some kind of a deal with Ryanair – or does he have shares in the company?
Over-optimistic Irish soccer supporters who had already booked their tickets to South Africa for the World Cup needn’t worry. All they have to do is turn their flags around and support Ivory Coast. And Thierry Henry doesn’t play for them.
I made my first trip to the legendary city of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne (or to give it its preferred modern moniker Newcastle-Gateshead, reflecting both the north and south bank of the river) last week for a conference on records management – and didn’t regret it. My limited knowledge of the north-east of England had been drawn largely from the popular stereotypes as depicted in Viz comic, The Likely Lads and Auf Wiedershen Pet. Much of this depicts a rather grim, violent place, but I discovered a thriving modern city proud of its industrial past, steeped in history and looking forward to the future. The city’s renaissance of the last few years is reflected by the recent developments on the south bank of the Tyne (ie the part known as Gateshead) such as the Sage theatre (which as one conference speaker pointed out resembles a giant silver slug), the former Baltic Flour Mill, now an art gallery and the luxury riverside flats which have sprung up.
And there’ also of course the marvel of post-modern engineering design, the Millennium Bridge, a curved bridge which lights up at night, regularly changing colour. It was only on receiving change at a corner shop which yielded a pound coin, on the reverse side of which was the bridge itself that I finally realised that this image had been in and out of my pocket for all these years.
And one popular stereotype is in fact true – they do go out in t-shirts in freezing cold, wet weather.
Below: Amazing transformations will take place when you swim in this pool…
Below: the cross at Bran Castle
Above: 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
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!
A comedian called Michael McIntyre (a not very funny one though, like most of the stand-up so-called “comedians” you see on TV these days) did a routine about Scottish banknotes. His main point was that despite being sterling and thus legal tender in all parts of the UK, they generally aren’t accepted in England. Much the same as Northern Irish banknotes – an age old rant familiar to many who on crossing the Irish Sea find that their hard-earned Bank of Ireland, Ulster Bank and Northern Bank notes, although being sterling currency of legally equal value to Bank of England notes, just don’t cut it.
A few years ago, I was returning to London after being home for Christmas. Knowing that my local bank notes wouldn’t be accepted once I got off the plane at Stansted, I tried to get them changed at Belfast International airpport. On being told to my utter bewilderment that there was a charge (yes a fucking charge to change sterling notes into different sterling notes of the same denomination of equal value) I point blankly refused and walked way in disgust, resigned to the fact hat I’d have to wait till the next time I went home to use up these notes.
How fucking ridiculous can you get?
Even machines don’t seem to accept them – I’ve tried on ticket machines at train stations and at the self-service check-out in supermarkets, but the machines are just too clever.
So why the fuck do the NI and Scottish banks issue their own notes in the first place if they’re not accepted in the same currency zone? Ironically they’re more likely to be accepted in the Eurozone in places like Lifford, Letterkenny or Louth than in London, Luton or Leicester.
Now if we all adopted the euro, none of this would be happening…;-)
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.
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.