Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Wearing Thin

Wearing Thin

Late going home after minor delays,
you might be walking past
‘the worst guest house in England’
or a church’s backlit triptych of saints
and watching for nothing more grave
than a displaced traffic sign.
The whole town is doing its best.
Even now the river’s only troubled
by a cormorant’s neck like a snag.
Monumental Victorians rest in peace.
Behind these emphatic hoardings,
developments will occur.
Lifestyle smiles from every angle.

Some things are easier said than done.
Ignoring overheard remarks
or epidemic rumours turning heads,
you might be amongst the bustle and puff
of a delayed windowshopper’s
determined indignation.
You were thinking
how it might have been otherwise
when you were caught at the lights
with all hopes dashed
by a misread magazine headline:
You are what you were.

A version of this poem was previously posted online by Various Artists.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Obscure moments in the life of a home counties teenager

Given that there currently appears to be a resurgence of interest in the (un)popular music of the late 70s/early 80s post-punk years, when bands pursuing the 'anyone can do it' DIY ethic split away from the increasingly formulaic punk 'mainstream' and when teenagers in corduroy jackets and 'reinvented' 50s dresses began to identify themselves as belonging to something different to the groomed mohican and mohair jumper-wearing crowd, here's a modest selection of old footage that YouTube has recently dredged back to the surface...

Swell Maps: Midget Submarine

Cabaret Voltaire: Nag Nag Nag

Birthday Party: Release the Bats

The Raincoats: Fairytale in the Supermarket

The Pop Group: She Is Beyond Good And Evil

Josef K: It's Kinda Funny

Orange Juice: Rip It Up

Pere Ubu: Waiting For Mary

Elsewhere, perhaps, there was disco...

Sofia's speech

From 'Hotel Illyria', Tobacco Factory, Bristol, 2008
Fifteen years after the end of communism in an unspecified SE European country, Sofia reflects on the mixed fortunes of the hotel in whose grounds she runs a cafe not entirely unlike the one pictured above (which is in the grounds of the Hotel Dajti in Tirana, Albania).


Those summers at the Hotel Illyria... Cars pulling in at the gate. The good comrades down from the city. Ministers, generals, heads of this, directors of that. "Evening, Sofia," they'd say as they came into the foyer. "Welcome to the Illyria, comrade."

And the silver service was laid and the band were playing. And after they'd all gone up to change, they'd all come back down again, down the staircase... that huge, sweeping staircase... and always in order, of course. The most senior, the most favoured, right down to the ones who'd disappear the following year... I never worked out how they did that. How they arranged it so they all came down from their rooms in exactly the right order... Who told them? Who knew? They must have waited, each of them, in all their finery, ears pressed against their bedroom door, listening out for who was going past, listening out for their turn.

And when the Leader was here - the panic! Everyone tripping over everyone else, the maids and the police, the waiters and the bodyguards. And the maitre d' poring over this great list of instructions, looking for clues. Would the Leader be inclined to red or white wine this year? Fish or meat? Gravy or sauce? And he would have to choose and wait and sweat until that first meal was served, the first glass poured, and we'd all take up our stations in the dining room, hardly able to breathe, stomachs like stones, absolute silence... Until, yes, there it was: the first mouthful, the first sip... and that famous face - the one on every banknote, every stamp... there it was, unmistakeably, the Leader's half-smile... And then, when we were sure, the sound would come rushing back into the room like a shower of rain. And conversations would start. And orders be given. And the cutlery clattered and we'd be rushing in and out of the kitchens, fetching bread, fetching wine, fetching plates piled high with food... Of course, that was years ago. Before the Siguritate came here. Before they arrested the maitre d'. Pjeter. My husband.

Mostar and Sarajevo

Pictures from Bosnia 2009:
a) the plaque in Sarajevo commemorating the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914;
b) an as-yet unreconstructed 'new construction' in Mostar, shelled during the siege;
c) the park in Mostar - no dogs, no ball games, no guns;
d) Mostar's reconstructed - and laws of physics-defying - bridge. It's the early afternoon: the crowd at the balustrade is a coach party from Dubrovnik or Montenegro. A bloke from the Mostar Diving Club is about to jump.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009


For no other reason than that we're coming towards the end of the year and making lists suddenly seems to be the 'thing to do', here are some books I've read in the last twelve months (although many were published before that) which might be of interest if what's been posted on this blog so far has itself been of any interest at all.

Bohumil Hrabal: The Little Town Where Time Stood Still
Novel by the Czech author of the elegantly concise 'Closely Observed Trains' and slightly madly exuberant 'I Served the King of England'. This one revolves around a brewery, a woman with unfeasibly long hair and an uncle who almost compulsively smashes up furniture in a Europe about to fall under the shadow of various dictatorships. The most obvious comparison would be Marquez - but Hrabal is better at jokes.

Julian Evans: Semi-Invisible Man
Biography of the novelist and travel writer Norman Lewis ('A Dragon Apparent', 'Naples '44' etc). Lewis combined a love of Bugatti racing cars with campaigning for the rights of indigenous communities in South America and admirably refusing to play the literary 'game'. That, at least, is how Evans sees him.

Jan Morris: Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere
Travel book/lament for a city conventionally dismissed with the phrase 'faded grandeur' but where Freud went to study the genitalia of eels, Svevo wrote 'Zeno's Conscience' and Joyce caused a diplomatic incident within hours of his arrival (and is now commemorated by a bronze on an obscure footbridge). This, too, is the city from where Austro-Hungarian scion Maximillian departed for Mexico (and his firing squad execution, as most famously depicted by Manet) and where Archduke Franz Ferdinand's corpse passed through the streets on its way back to Vienna from Sarajevo.

Colin Thubron: Among The Russians
Account of a journey through the Soviet Union, when such a place still existed. Opens with an the phrase: 'I had been afraid of Russia ever since I could remember'. Arguably, one of the sanest travel books about the Communist bloc written during the Cold War (for contrast try Dymphna Cusack's 'Illyria Reborn' or, indeed, from a very different perspective, the Albanian chapter in Eric Newby's 'On the Shores of the Mediterranean').

Philip Marsden: The Crossing Place
Account of a journey through the Armenian diaspora and into Armenia itself. Particularly revealing for all those who 'missed' the Armenian genocide or are slightly perplexed by the stringency of the Turkish government's laws against even mentioning that it happened.

Ismail Kadare: The Siege
Despite an acceleration in publication since he won the Booker Man International Prize, only a very small number of the Albanian writer's novels are available in English translation. This is the latest, a reworking of a book previously published (during Albania's communist 'Hoxha time') as 'The Castle'. It's not difficult to tease out an allegorical interpretation of this tale of the Ottoman Empire's assault on an Albanian fortress. Hopefully, a translation of Kadare's most recent novel in Albanian, 'Darka e Gabuar' ('The Mistaken Dinner', at a stab), won't be too far distant as a French version has recently appeared. In the meantime, there's always 'The Successor', 'Broken April', 'The File on H', 'Agamemnon's Daughter', 'Chronicle in Stone'... Despite his relatively new-found fame in western Europe, Kadare remains a controversial figure in both Albania and SE Europe as a whole, largely because of his ambiguous relationship to the Hoxha regime (how did he manage to survive in the most repressive of repressive regimes without making some kind of 'accommodation' with it?) and his apparently enigmatic decision to leave the country on the eve of its 'democratic' revolution in 1991 (explained in his hard-to-find 'Albanian Spring'). For a glimpse of the arguments (and my minor incursion into them), see the review and subsequent letters at www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n17/thomas-jones/feuds-corner

William Dalrymple: From The Holy Mountain
Dalrymple was the only writer I saw at this year's Cheltenham Literature Festival who didn't bow to the prevailing genteel atmosphere and the carefully PR industry-nurtured habit of only drinking mineral water and not swearing on stage. I bought this on the strength of his confident flouting of convention and the disapproving 'harrumphs' from the audience (who, earlier in the day, had been quite happy to queue to get Cheri Blair and Harry Hill's signatures on their latest tomes). It's an account of a journey among orthodox Christian communities from Greece to Syria and Lebanon to Egypt; its descriptions of the similarity of the religious rites practised by Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Middle East make the tenor of world politics in the last decade look even more woefully Swiftian.

Misha Glenny: McMafia
How Montenegro allegedly funded its independence from Serbia using the profits from its blackmarket cigarette trade and many other stories of organised crime's easy exploitation of 'globalisation', the 'tiger economies' and 'new capitalism'. The section on how to hack into anyone's computer using a Pringles tube is particularly worrying. If you come across this in paperback, don't let the tabloidy cover put you off.

Robert Elsie & Janie Mathie-Heck (eds): Lightning from the Depths
Anthology of Albanian poetry that ranges from excerpts from traditional oral epics and the poetry of the 19th-century 'national renaissance' to contemporary work. Breathtakingly diverse (imagine an anthologry of English poetry ranging from Milton to Prynne) and, given the confines of a single volume, necessarily episodic, but as good a selection as is possible in the circumstances when the editors (and translators) here are some of the very few people able to translate directly from Albanian into English.

Lloyd Jones: Biografi
Very odd book which its author originally passed off as a non-fiction account of his quest to find Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha's 'double', Petar Shapallo. No such person existed or, if he did, he wasn't called Petar Shapallo. Jones, though, does seem to have travelled to Albania in the aftermath of the collapse of communism but how much of the resultant book is fiction and how much non-fiction remains a matter of debate. Either way, on the eve of Jones's appearance at the Brisbane Writers Festival last year, The Australian newspaper (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/) took issue with him over playing fast and loose with 'the truth'. To make matters even more confusing, there used to be an article on-line which claimed that David Byrne (as in Talking Heads) had written the book.

Not entirely unexpectedly, very few of these books were actually available in a bookshop the last time I looked.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Two Poems

Something like an epitaph

And so now we will have to try and find the words,
we three, sitting here, dumbstruck, the weekend
before Christmas. What we depended on has gone:
there's no talking our way out of this. For once
your silvered laptop keyboard has nothing
to offer. His obituary won't write itself.

Almost exactly square patches of sunlight
interrupt dinner-party table, terracotta walls:
they won't join up. Midway through our lives,
we're simply sitting in so much stripped pine,
welcoming distraction - doorbells, kids,
the slightest circumstantial change.

It won't go away. Silence is goading,
a crackling socket in need of fixing.
Whatever it is we'd rather not say
sits tight between sofas, remote controls,
the lifted plunger of a half-warmed cafetiere.
The garden drops away towards another life.

Are we fated to this? I wouldn't go so far -
only damned to it, this frost-clear Sunday,
we're clutching at smart puns, unlikely
recollections, these few tapped-out thoughts,
the things he might have said or done with us,
friends not being friends, really, until now.

European Union

At first it might have been coincidence
that we heard so many car horns
shifting through the Doppler effect,
or checked in at hotels where girls
in Sunday best held hands and sang
interminable folk tunes.

Only, the following day, new couples
emerged from a scaffolded church
with candles lit, and family groups
assembled in a park for photographs
where filigree blossom coincidentally
obscured the Stalinist backdrop.

Thirty, forty weddings eased
from ceremonies to pose
beneath late-flowering cherry trees,
anticipated pleasures, and advice
they'd hardly need, being of an age
where all has seemed to changed.

Such innocence again around the square,
these brand new starts, this expectation,
Romanian sunlight on dove-grey dresses.

Friday, 27 November 2009

'Private' beach, Budva, Montenegro

A small beach in Montenegro

"Russians," he said, with an air of bitter-sweet regret. "Too much, eh? Too much?"
I was clearly expected to agree but, seeing as we were swinging around hairpin bends on the mountainous coast road to Budva at the time, it was difficult to concentrate on anything other than the possibility that my son might be about to projectile vomit all over the taxi's leather upholstery.
This journey hadn't been part of the schedule. Having crossed the border into predictably rugged Montenegro from the relatively gentle mayhem of Shkodra in northern Albania, we'd had time for several cups of coffee outside Podgorica railway station before sitting out on the platform to wait for the train down to Bar and a spectacular journey through the mountains to the Adriatic coast. In a suitably dilapidated train, we'd rumbled into tunnels, and out again into valleys that took your breath away and around the brimming banks of lakes where fat men in swimming trunks were casually tossing fishing lines. At Bar, we tried and failed to find the only hotel that the guide book could bring itself to recommend.
"What do you want to stay here for?" asked the first taxi driver who picked us up. "Big money! Try this instead."
He dropped us outside what looked like a cross between a 1970s dole office and a vandalised primary school. The curtains were like shrouds; they blew out through the holes where the windows should have been. As we walked away, another cabby U-turned across the dual carriageway and then snorted with identical scorn when we mentioned the other hotel that the guide book recommended.
"Big money! Pah!" he said, even more emphatically than his colleague. "Where are you going anyhow? Budva? Kotor?"
Before we knew it, we were on our way to "somewhere much better" out of town. A petrol pump attendant filled our tank and waved us through without bothering to ask for money. It was as if having westerners in the back of his Mercedes were enough to grant our driver carte blanche. He took to the coast road with a derring-do which verged on the insane. After several more U-turns and tunnels, we were hanging over Sveti Stefan, the island resort much favoured by the likes of Sophia Loren. "It is presidential resort," announced the driver.
Hotels clinging to sheer-sided slopes came and went. They were all, he went on, built and owned by Russians. Somewhere around a hair-pin, and just beyond policemen hanging over a hundred-metres drop to look down onto a car crash, we arrived in Budva. This was where, the driver decided, we should stop. After some daredevil rubber-necking, he slid into the traffic heading into the resort. He'd been talking about delivering us further north in the old Venetian city of Kotor but he'd obviously lost interest. It was much too far. Instead, we swooped through lumbering coast road buses and, just past a half-finished apartment block, pulled up in a side street where the Hotel Kangaroo announced that it might or not have vacancies. God knows what the answer would have depended upon because we didn't have much choice. No sooner had the taxi rolled to a halt than a woman with far too many wrinkles for her age and a Japanese T-shirt leapt up from a table where she'd been drinking espresso very slowly, and, via the taxi driver's halting translation, announced that she had a room where we could stay. A short walk from the beach, amongst guesthouses overspilling towel-wrapped Serbians, Russians, Ukrainians and, since the political wind was still blowing in that direction, Slovenians, Bosnians and Croats, we were shown into a bare, four-walled cell kitted out wth a broken 80s ghetto blaster and a plug socket held onto the wall with gaffer tape. Naturally, we took it.
Budva itself was a ruin waiting to happen. In the absence of planning permission, a narrow strip of habitable land between the mountains and the sea was being rendered entirely uninhabitable. Adventure sports addicts who had no idea about where they were staying, other than that it was relatively close to an EasyJet airport, floated down into the bay on paragliders. The concrete skeletons of hotels were going up everywhere and the deeply stacked stalls along the waterfront sold everything from candy floss and shark's teeth to dodgy DVDs and ripped-off designer clothing. In the marina, photogenic yachts were moored beneath a gigantic hi-def TV screen.
In a bar in the old town, we sat drinking beer and were immediately distracted by a bulbous Russian oligarch with a half-shaved skull, a pony tail and a seventeen-year-old girlfriend in a bikini. Gift shops sold 'traditional' handicrafts and, in a cafe just down from the unvisited Archaeological Museum, we tried very hard to choose a salad that wasn't produced according to a recipe sent out across Europe from the restaurant franchise's HQ. People had come halfway across the continent to buy telling Balkan fragments and were going home with mass-produced necklaces, T-shirts and recorders. On the waterfront, the immigrant workers charged with sloshing out the bilges of the oligarchs' floating palazzi sat at tables knocking back glasses of indeterminate raki while impressed tourists took their picture. Under the trees, there were people selling cardigans, traditional knitwear and fish. A small sea bass wilted under the streetlamps outside the Hemingway Bar.
The town's only treasure was its library. Up in the castle, where teenagers forced into traditional dress handed out tickets that nobody bothered to check, there was a room full of locked cabinets. Each one contained ranks of books: English, French and German volumes about the difficult history of the Ottoman Empire in Europe. Nobody would agree to open the cases so I lay on the floor, scribbling down titles onto the backs of free postcards, each one half-blotted out by sweat, each one, hopefully, on Google Books. Outside, on both sides of the high Venetian ramparts, swimmers dived off the white stone walls into the bay.
Across the water was an island known as 'Hawaii'. It looks like that: a sudden volcanic apostrophe rising out of the sea. We followed a path round the headland towards a 'private' beach where, having handed over three euros for the privilege or 'privacy', we picked a route across the crowded strand to find a metre or two between American backpackers reading John Irving novels and the canvas shower cubicle where overweight Russians came to gossip before they washed off salt and sand. It was so hot you could hardly walk down to the water. We tiptoed around like ballerinas while the beach cafes thumped out turbofolk. Under the water, the only dangers were dumped beer cans, shiny-white between the lumps of rock. Looking back towards the beach , I couldn't help noticing a woman stood on the shoreline, arms outstretched, looking towards where her children were splashing around in the sea. Her husband called her back towards the bar. As she turned, the slogan across her buttocks was plain to see: 'Cool!' - the message and the medium perfectly out of kilter.

Originally published on-line by Various Artists. Reposted here with thanks. Tom Phillips

Shkodra, Albania

Shkodra: The now abandoned Lead Mosque (top); inside Rozafa Castle (middle) and the view across Lake Shkodra towards Montenegro (bottom).

Friday, 20 November 2009

The legend of Rozafa Castle

What's left of Rozafa Castle stands on a rocky promontory just outside Shkodra in northern Albania. It overlooks the flood plain where, before the river burst its banks one too many times, a bazaar used to be and where the only sign of this stretch of damp, flat land's former life is the hollow carcass of a mosque. A taxi driver will take you up the steep twists of the castle approach as far as a car park just below the gates or you can walk from the musty, communist-era hotel in the centre of town, stopping at the rank of new shops and cafes on the outskirts for a coffee and an ice-cream in a novelty 'Punky' plastic figurine. Across the dual carriageway, a lane lunges up in zigzag slashes across the promontory, past walled orchards and a primary school which still has communist slogans pebble-dashed into concrete blocks in the playground.
Rozafa is one of Albania's effectively impregnable citadels. Its history involves numerous sieges and, in the fifteenth century, it was the last fortress to surrender when the Ottoman Empire was crushing the rebellions inspired by goat-helmeted Albanian warlord Skanderbeg. When Rozafa castle fell, Albania was consigned to Ottoman occupation until independence in 1912.
These days, Rozafa is the domain of school parties who plod around the ramparts clutching garish flags and flocks of in-bred pigeons which hobble across the courtyard by the castle museum, their feet hidden by strange sprays of grey feathers. The views are spectacular, there's a chapel which became a mosque and then became a chapel again, and the castle bar is staffed by boys reluctantly wearing traditional dress. Access to the museum is determined by the electricity supply. When there's no power, you'll get in for free but you won't be able to see anything.
The legend of Rozafa is the story of the third builder's wife. Three brothers, it seems, were building the castle but the section of the wall they were building repeatedly collapsed. At the end of their tether, they were relieved when an Albanian version of a djinn turned up and offered a 'deal'. The wives of these three brothers came up to the castle every day, bringing lunch. Should the first wife to appear the following day be incarcerated in the wall, the castle would be finished. The djinn asked the three brothers to swear that none of them would forewarn their wives. They did so but two of them, of course, immediately broke their promise and told their wives to stay home all day. The third, though, kept his word and, the following day, watched while his wife toiled up the promontory to deliver his lunch. He promptly told her that she was the one who had to be immured to guarantee the completion of the castle. Remarkably, she agreed (or was forced) but only on the grounds that, since she had a young baby to feed, a small hole would be left in the wall, through which she could breastfeed her child. Even to this day, milky water is said to seep from various holes in the walls of Rozafa castle.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Ornithology in the Balkans

Ornithology in the Balkans

It wasn't the Muslim weddings that took our eye
on that alluvial floodplain so much
as bent-wire cages under every tree,
goldfinches' less than common soliciting
beside trapped black squirrels and a dove.
At xhiro hour, along streets of dark stairwells,
the hawkers were out, their not so fair trade
drawing buyers who swooped on bargains
and took promises of health and long life
as just so much hot air. On the fly,
you might have been taken in
by flashes of iridescence or plain song.
Above the mountains of another country,
the rumoured eagles were predominantly crows.

Because, at one time, there was more
than some doubt, above the disputed town,
its castle flaunts a history of sieges
in so many collapsing balustrades,
and the milk-white dribble between stones
which is said to seep from the breast
of the wife sacrificed to complete it.
Across the promontory's ruined terrain,
we were trying to work out which wall
had belonged to which religion
when, against the faithless sky,
a squadron flew in: dandyish pigeons,
bred for it, stumbling around,
hunting down a roost in feathery galoshes.

The first one

At this stage, a broad statement of intent would be unwise. Suffice it to say, the putative title of this blog was going to be Working Progress, something of a hedge between work-in-progress and a broader, vaguer optimism - but that had already been snaffled by someone else and, on reflection, it does rather sound like the title of a particularly bland Labour Party manifesto. Perhaps, in fact, the Labour Party were the ones who snaffled it first.
I imagine, then, that the contours of this 'whatever it is' will emerge over time but, for the moment, it will mainly feature bits and pieces of writing which will probably be by me but which might well also be contributed by other writers later on. These bits and pieces - poems, fiction, theatre, travelogue etc - may be in a more or less finished state. That depends. Sometimes it's interesting to see work-in-progress; other times it isn't. Likewise, it's sometimes interesting to read about the process behind a piece of writing and, at other times, that can be as dull as the dullest ditchwater. Or, indeed, that metaphor itself. Other posts might not have anything to do with writing at all.
What this won't be, however, is a wide-ranging blogzine like the continually thought-provoking Eyewear (http://www.toddswift.blogspot.com/) or a blogsplurge of dietary habits, relationship stress and what happened on 'The X-Factor' this week. Recreation Ground sits somewhere in between, like an underused all-weather tennis court beside the mainline between Euston and Glasgow, exactly, in fact, like the underused all-weather tennis court which sat beside the mainline between Euston and Glasgow at the head of 'the rec' in the village where I grew up. Just down the slope is the 'impossible' (or, more accurately, pointless) cricket pitch carved into the side of a hill and the knackered old pavillion with a stopped clock sitting like a cake decoration above a verdigris-scrawled balcony.
Today I ate sausages for lunch and tried to upload my wife's photograph to her Facebook account.