Sunday 25 November 2012

Archive Article – Dublin Revisited

Originally published in the travel section of the now-defunct Poland Monthly magazine in December 2005

Dublin Revisited

Dublin has always been one of those reassuring cities, like Paris or Krakow, that would always be there waiting for me just as I had left it the last time. That could be because it has always been my most frequently-visited ‘other’ city. Though I was born and bred in Birmingham, both my parents are Dubliners.

But this time round I had had a seven-year break from the place, my longest yet, and what I saw came as a shock. One sure sign of change is scaffolding everywhere and you get to see plenty of it just minutes from the airport. It was in abundance all along the city’s main thoroughfare, O’Connell Street, large chunks of which were being refurbished.

Construction work is a pain, especially when you are visiting a place at your leisure and O’Connell Street has always been my favourite part of the city, despite any need for reassurance, mainly because it is testimony to radical and often violent change. The dust brought on by all the noisy labour forced me to give it a miss for much of the time I was there but there was an addition to the line of monuments that characterise the street, which made you realise that Ireland now has a very different attitude toward its past and how it relates to the present.

I had visions of myself walking up that avenue hand-in-hand with one or other of my parents, craning my neck up at Daniel O’Connell’ statue and being told all about his heroic role in Irish history. Then there was James Larkin, the trade union leader at the time of the 1913 Dublin Lock Out, and Charles Stewart Parnell, the parliamentary nationalist of the late nineteenth century, both of whom my dad would always point at with pride. And then later, there was Anna Livia Plurabelle, the character from James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake, also clad in stone on O’Connell Street, who was also there to personify the River Liffey, running under O’Connell bridge. A fictional heroine-cum-icon, it would seem. And she wasn’t the only one. Irish imaginations feed off one another. A minute’s walk or so away leads you to Grafton Street where Molly Malone stands, the subject of a mere song, yet plying her cockles and mussels (“Alive, Alive o”) stiffly next to her wheelbarrow.

Yet right smack in the middle of O’Connell Street is an interloper. And no-one in Dublin seems to know what to do with it. Since I was there last time a big needle, calling itself the ‘Millennium Spire’ has been planted in ground that until then had been hallowed turf for the nation’s heroes, real or not.

The sentimental among the Irish, who it has to be said constitute the vast majority, have not had much truck with this spear in the sky, which has played little or no role in rallying the population to the cause of the country.

Literary Dublin (i.e. most of its citizens) has predictably garlanded the ‘spike’ with a wealth of disparaging nicknames, such as the ‘Stiletto in the Ghetto’, the ‘Scud in the Mud’ and the ‘Stiffy by the Liffey’. But this is nothing new. Before she made way for the spike Anna Livia Plurabelle was dubbed the ‘Floozie in the Jacuzzi’ or the ‘Hoor in the Sewer’. Her inventor, the revered James Joyce, still stands at street level with his cane in nearby North Earl Street and has for long been known as the ‘Prick with the Stick’.

This all goes to show that a visit to Dublin brings with it very little in the way of reassurance, however much you may hope for it.

If that rather bland needle on O’Connell Street has lanced the Irish propensity for sentimentality, then so be it, though it is not that clever a symbol in my view. What it does represent, nevertheless, is a country that is far from gazing at its historical navel anymore. It is all upwards from here on in, aside from the beer, might I add.

Take the pubs these days. They all look as they ever did, which is a relief if you have just travelled in from the UK as I had, with all its obnoxious ‘vertical’ drinking and ear-bursting ‘fun-pubs’. Dublin’s boozers still put conversation first.

The guy handing me my pint of Guinness in one bar looked as if he could have come from Malaysia or thereabouts. In one of the previous places I had been served by someone who appeared Middle Eastern. It was disconcerting. Not because of where they were from, you understand, but because of where they were at that particular time: serving behind a bar. Dublin has become an even more intriguing city since it began saying ‘Cead Mile Failte’ (a hundred thousand welcomes) to foreigners hoping to make a new life for themselves there.

A trip back to Dublin has invariably meant that I imbibe as much of the black stuff that my liver and budget can handle and on previous visits the velvety slide of a mouthful of ‘stout’, as the Dubliners call it, down my throat always came courtesy of the patience and skill of that staunchest of the city’s institutions: the local barman.

In most cities, people serving behind a bar do so as a stop-gap before they move onto better things. But, until very recently, that was never so in Dublin. The barman there had always served an apprenticeship, which meant that when he passed you your pint he would be giving you the consummate drinking experience. You would have ordered that drink some fifteen to twenty minutes before putting it to your lips, the professional opposite ensuring that it had been through at least three stages of being poured and settled before presenting it to you as if some mysterious chalice of nectar.

But Ireland’s rampant economic success has called time on the Dublin born-and-bred barman. The only ones I came across were in the airport bar, a telling observation in itself. Now, overseas students man the taps and although tradition no doubt dictates that they still respect Guinness’s need to be at ease with itself before they deliver it to the customer, the tender loving care afforded to a pint by the Dublin barman is just not in their blood.

Molly Malone’s ‘fair city’ is no more. By that I do not mean you are likely to get ripped off in the place than you were in the past, just that the Irish capital has become one of Europe’s genuinely cosmopolitan cities it what seems like no time at all.

Every time I got on a bus, every time I looked out onto the street, there was a black or brown face. This in a country which not only did not have an empire but was active in opposing one for much of its history.

The Poles have made themselves known, as well, particularly on Grafton Street where the buskers and street artists gather. I spotted a Polish girl about to strike up on her guitar with a “little piece of Polish culture” as her notice on a piece of card stated, until she was interrupted by a passer-by and engaged in the compulsory chat.

Dublin has become a melting pot that O’Connell Street’s statues do no justice to. Time waits for no one, the city has become intangible and I do not feel I understand the place anymore, as I used to in the old days when strolling the streets with my parents and brother, or at other stages of my life. But that may not be a bad thing at all. At the end of the day you don’t travel to be reassured.

Sunday 4 November 2012

Archive Article - Belgrade's Booze Future

Originally published in Belgrade Insight, the Serbian capital’s only English language newspaper, in February 2009

Belgrade’s Big Hope is Booze

It's the nightlife that has everyone raving about Belgrade, whether the clubs throb away underground or judder up and down on the Sava. Guidebooks do it, even national newspapers do it, they all writhe in desperate homage to the hedonistic Mecca that is the Serbian capital.

It is a natural development, really. Serbia, the outcast of Europe in the 90s, would always become the next big thing in rampant partying after the other post-Communist countries descended into their own - sometimes peculiar - brands of respectability.

With the Brit stag-nighters making an unholy mess of the likes of Krakow and Vilnius, the discerning clubber, perhaps weaned onto Serbian fare via the EXIT festival, has had Belgrade to look forward to as a more wholesome alternative. A place where you can dance without some drunken idiot giving you bother, where the locals have yet to be turned off by your presence and where a night out is still not going to break the bank, the Serbian capital would seem to have it all for the punter who just wants to party in peace.

However, that is not the whole story. I for one have often been puzzled by the hype surrounding the fabled Belgrade 'scene'. Yes, you can have a great time here and the clubs are refreshingly free of violence and pretension, in the main. The music can be the bees knees and all. But is that it?

I arrived here after stints in St Petersburg - where impromptu stripping wasn't unknown - and Warsaw - where the urge to dance on bars and tables seemed irresistible to many - and have so far have had little reason to raise my eyebrows at the nocturnal goings on in this city.

Because it isn't really clubbing that defines the capital's experience after-dark, it's the cafes, though they seem to do a roaring trade whether it's Monday morning at 11am or 9pm on a Friday.

Whatever the time of day in this city, there is always a sweltering mass of bodies huddled around tables and haggling over conversations. 

I wondered into Terazija just after the pro-Karadzic riot had ended in July, tripped over some rubble and noticed that loads of people were chin-wagging their way through the evening in the Hotel Moskva cafe and Biblioteka as if absolutely nothing had happened right there, just outside. Was it the abundant cigarette smoke that we have all come to know and love from living in Belgrade that prevented them from seeing that riot police and youths had been pummelling one another? Or was their nattering time post-work far too precious to pay heed to something as unseemly as an anti-social disturbance? Or were they just completely mad?

Brushing myself off of rubble dust, I could almost imagine a brick flying through the window of the Moskva and being caught nonchalantly by one of its patrons, while he/she (most probably ‘she’, as women tend to be the majority in the city’s cafes) lit up her next fag. "And anyway...", she would continue.

Ultra-cool Belgrade cafe society may be, inclusive it is not. True, it avoids all that nonsense of posing and 'people watching' that Paris and even London are supposed to get up to. Talk, caffeine and nicotine are the sources of this city's main vibe. But, let's face it, anything sociable that eschews alcohol is placing itself off limits to strangers and often has its head right up its own backside.

Booze is the fuel that drives us into the unknown, that barges past convention, that gets us talking to the person we've just brushed against on the way to the toilet. It can also turn you into a boorish wreck but that risk is evident the moment glass makes contact with lip.

This is not something I have had much cause to say since I started living in Eastern Europe, but it could well be that Belgraders just aren't consuming enough alcohol.

There are positives in this. At least in this city a walk along the pavement does not resemble a scene from 'Dawn of the Dead', as it can in some parts of St. Petersburg or Warsaw that I know of, such are the number of drunks sashaying from one end to the other.

But when I go to my favourite haunt in Belgrade, the Three Carrots Irish pub, I feel I can see Belgrade's future. Sitting up at the bar there is a homely experience, once you've done it a few times, and although it does afford the odd pleasure of anonymity as you blend in with the other amorphous boozers, you know that at any minute someone could park themselves next to you and conversation will begin to flow.

Yet aside from a few very pleasant exceptions, the companion has invariably turned out to be male. According to one of the bar staff I spoke to, women don't want to drink at the bar because they are worried about being associated with the 'drunks' who gravitate there.

That includes me, clearly. Though apart from getting a bit sleepy after a jug too many, neither myself or any other of the 'Three Carrots' stalwarts have done anything untoward and it as trouble-free a joint as you will find anywhere in the city.

So let the pub triumph over the cafe in Belgrade, 2009. Fags are foul, coffee is crud and beer is boss.

This can also be read along with this, my first ever 'Comment is Free' piece for The Guardian, published very shortly after the article above.

Saturday 3 November 2012

5 Days of War - A Film Steeped in Appalling Bias

I watched the 2011 film 5 Days of War about the short conflict in August 2008 between Georgia and Russia over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia yesterday evening and was shocked at its dreadful lack of balance. In depicting the South Ossetians/Russians as brutal war criminals, while the Georgians are perceived as innocent victims incapable of malice, the filmmakers committed their own crime against history.

It was of course the Georgians who launched the initial attack on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali on August 9th, which led to a rapid escalation of the tensions which had been building up between the sides.

Shortly after the brief war had ended I wrote this piece for the Press Gazette which shows that there was an entirely different version of events to be believed than is granted by 5 Days of War, which incredibly features some illustrious names in acting, such as Val Kilmer, Andy Garcia and Heather Graham, albeit in a cameo role.
Plenty of reviewers at the time also condemned the film for its blatant propaganda and Human Rights Watch were reportedly not happy with it despite the organisation being cited in what is a breathtakingly crass piece of filmmaking.