Friday, December 25, 2009

The Skull of Idris Kadeer

I was taking flummery in my rooms at Lampeter when came a knock at the door. At my weary summons Szczackowsky trailed in and draped his limbs over my prie-dieu.

"Sorry to trouble you, Boyo, but I wonder whether I could pick your brains on some heathen lore."

"A pleasure, " I replied, proffering the spoon that heals. Szczackowsky took a listless sip. After some pleasantries about the disposition of my mistletoe, he told me a tale the like of which I had long feared to hear.

"I gather the swart Mussulman does not bury his dead in a decent coffin, but rather winds him in the poor fellow's own headgear before consigning him to a shallow grave and having done with it," he began.

"Not entirely the case," I garbed my distaste in the mildest of rebukes. "The Mahommedan does not despoil our holy oak through entombment, it's true, but is most solicitous towards the memory of the departed, with commemorative feasts on the fortieth day of his kinsman's sojourn in Paradise and its anniversary. Alms and sweetbreads are offered to the indigent. Heathens perhaps, but certainly not barbarians."

My Polish colleague grunted, and cast a lashless eye at the sleet that slathered the windows of my set. "Always happy to acquaint you with the latest research," he muttered. "You remember my field trip to the archives of the Emir of Bokhara?"

I nodded. Szczackowsky's discipline was the heraldry of his itinerant homeland, with particular interest in the hitherto elusive enoblement of his ancestors. The few versts of palsied peasantry that bore the Szczackowsky name near Gszmak were too little and too far.

"Well, I tired of the musty indices and decided to take the air on the outskirts of that sand-girdled satrapy," he continued. "Soon I found myself on broken ground, alone but for some carrion birds. It must have been some forlorn battlefield, for I nearly tripped over a bald rock that, on closer inspection - well, a kick, I admit - turned out to be a skull."

"A human skull?" I mused.

"That of a local," he replied hastily. "It was round like a water-melon, as is common among the Sarts."

"Of whom there are few in Bokhara, a city of Tad-jeeks," I remarked. "But do go on."

"I mean it was not elongated to fit a honey-melon, the measure of the Turcoman." I swore his duelling scars grew fevered in the peat light.

"A welcome discovery for the historian of the lay of Tamburlaine's campaigns," I concluded. "I shall mention it to Deakin. Now, I must dress for Calennig, and I fear my garlands have swollen since last year -"

"Please hear me out, Vortigern, for pity's sake!" My guest all but grasped the lapels of my jerkin.

"Sit down, Wozzeck, and pray a little more candour this time." I loaded the hookah as he puffed impatiently on a biddi.

"Very well, it was no battleground, and I wasn't taking a break from my work. Far from it - this was to be the acme of my academic achievement. Tell me, have you heard of Idris Kadeer?"

I set the mushrooms down for a moment, and drew a manuscript from my Khwarazmian cabinet. "The Tareekh of Buyouk-Muinack," I gently brushed the dust from its grey leaves. They seemed to whisper as I traced a path to the seventh chapter, the one that treated of Kadeer the Mad, and of His Curse. I translated aloud from the Tchaghatai:

"...and he who had walked gladly without the Light of the Merciful, who had passed through dunes and vaulted cisterns in the company of serpents and djins, now he met justice at the hands of the Prince's guards. Before his head rolled in the pious dust before the Kalyan, Idris fixed both eyes upon the crowd. His lips did not move, but all heard his words -"

I replaced the fading folio, as Szczackowsky's head had slumped in his hands. "What did you do?" I asked quietly.

"I'd heard the story of the great Necromancer of Bokhara, and how possession of his remains could bring unimaginable wealth and power -"

"Yes, unimaginable, and only to the adept," I interrupted.

"I know now." His voice was barely audible above the twilight patter of ravens in the courtyard below. "A chest of piastres had bought me an audience with a blind Maulana at Lab-i-Khawz. Imagine my delight, my exhilaration at being told where to find the tomb of Idris and all it contained!

"I ventured out at midnight, bribing the guards at the Ark to let me pass, and soon struck the path to a ruined medrassa on the very edge of the desert. The key I'd bought so dear let me down steps to a vile vault almost submerged in a sulphurous brine. And there I found it.

"I shan't bother you with the details of my nightmare of horror - the sounds, the sluggish movement of half-shadows, the underwater whispers - or my deranged flight across broken walls and cracked tombs until I piled sobbing on my rude bed, the prize in my hands. Merely to think of it robs me of nights of sleep.

"All I had found in the tomb was a handful of dust and a skull."

"The skull of Idris Kadeer?"

"I had no doubt, and less now." Szczackowsky lit another spindly cheroot, unaware of its sibling that still smouldered between his blanched lips. "I was disappointed to find the remains already reduced to powder, but felt grateful that at least the skull was intact."

"How do you feel now. Powerful? Prosperous?"

"Don't mock me, man!" A sickle moon spun unwholesome skeins across his brow. "I brought it out of Russia on a packet from Odessa, packed in a samovar, then by wagon-lit from Constantinople. It's fair to say I've not really slept since. At first I put the dreams down to fatigue, the ague, whatever, but soon the incessant clanging of gongs, the choking cloying fumes, the screams that surged into one endless shriek, the throbbing, indescribable colours, they all began to take on a shape - oh God, if you can call that a shape!"

"You know the curse," I asked as he covered his face again. Meeting only silence, I took up the manuscript of the Tareekh once again.

"... Who owns my bones shall have dominion over those who scattered them to the corners of the world, and over all that passes between, but woe upon those who divide me! The Two-Horned One shall greet them at the gates of Jahann-Am, and endless will be the burning blizzard of their torment. And then they shall behold my face..."

"That wasn't the tomb of Idris was it?" sobbed Szczackowsky.

I shook my head. "It was the Maulana's own ruined academy, the one that the mob had destroyed when they learned of his ungodly pursuits, the one where he had put out his own eyes rather than see what had been promised to him."

"He had been tricked into taking possession of the skull and becoming - how did Kadeer put it?- "

"One of 'those who divide me' - literally." I replaced the manuscript. "Until he passed it on to you."

"What am I to do, Boyo? You're my last hope."

I pointed skywards with a faint smile. "We ought to consider 'benefit of clergy', don't you think? Look, I know an imam - a Moslem cleric - as learned and devout as any of those Low Churchmen at St David's. He'll give the skull a decent burial, something that's clearly never occured to anyone. I take it the, er, object is here in your set?"

"Yes," he gabbled, "It's in a cupboard under my washstand! Of course I'll make it presentable, and - "

"Here's what you'll do. The whole college will be attending Calennig in an hour. If you stay at home, burn a good fire in the hearth and leave your door ajar, I'll send my fellow up. No one will see you."

"I don't know how to thank you," wept my colleague.

"Just go, and stop worrying." I pressed his hands, and led him to the door.

A while after he'd gone I set aside my nargileh, tapped at the connecting door to the next set of rooms and eased it open. It was dark inside, but warm and still. My neighbour sat in a high-backed chair by the empty hearth. I took his hand in mine, and traced calligraphy on the parched palm.

Across the square. The Frank has it. You will feel the warmth of his fire on your breast, and hear his breath in your heart. His fear will hang heavy in your throat. And soon you will see again, and speak - Master.

Idris Kadeer rose, and I followed him to the stairs.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Cum mortuis in lingua mortua

Like God, I am regularly disappointed by the people of the Near and Middle East.

The Lord granted them a hot and dusty climate, languages that make Welsh sound like birdsong, an array of ghastly, antagonistic religions and ready recourse to firearms, but all the hairy little bastards can do is complain and belt each other around the withers with Righteous Swords of This-And-That.

It comes as no surprise that people who want to enjoy themselves are the region's chief export, and that it attracts a pretty glum type of tourist. The only foreigners you see wandering around at their leisure are bumfaced women with short grey hair, their stooped and willowy husbands in sleeveless jackets and tweed hats, the occasional heretic-hunter, and members of the European Parliament.

This is a shame, as the Levant and its sandy hinterland preserve one of the chief joys now denied to most Europeans - two-fisted, bat-lunged smoking. If I were the tourism ministry of Syria, for example, I would ditch the posters of stylites, waterwheels and poetry-reading in favour of a large bucket of cigarettes with the words "And They're Cheaper Than A Basingstoke Bunk-Up" engraved thereon.

A poster campaign could follow, showing cheery moustachioed dads celebrating the birth of their masculine children with a smoke-in at the local maternity clinic.

But no, Syria has instead decided to ban smoking in public places. So far so typical for the joyless, slab-skulled Baathists, but the real punch to the pulmonaries was to hear that Turkey had brought in a smoking ban some time earlier.

Readers of this web blog will be familiar with both my enthusiasm for smoking and my admiration for the Turk - a square-headed pragmatist in a region of rat-eared madmen.

It is true that not even a Maoist can approve of everything the Turks have done along the pointy lance of their history, but on balance they've managed to dispense with religion, random hats, curly alphabets and tyrants with a higher degree of success than any of their neighbours to the south-east.

In the meantime they have given us ciggies, the assisted bath as a means of relaxation, and a prison system generous enough to accommodate all the whining druggies the West can spare.

I hope the broad-trousered Turk will defend his right to shroud the wine-dark Eastern Aegean in an absinthe-green haze. If not, the preachy types currently trying on the mighty boots of Atatürk will fetter his remaining freedoms in a fundamentalist firman.

For next comes membership of the European Union, which would oblige the erstwhile Ottomans to hyphenate their moustaches and drink watery coffee from bowls.

One of my formative smoking experiences happened in Istanbul. In pre-uxorious days I spent my leave on city breaks of an improving nature. I would chose a city of culture, book a long weekend, and spend it drinking heavily within sight of some of the finest buildings and richly-endowed art galleries of Europe and beyond.

A literally purple passage in Patrick Leigh Fermor's Mani once launched my drunken barque in the general direction of Stamboul. I've always been jealous of people whom Dirk Bogarde represented on screen, and none more so than Paddy.

In the great man's tsikoudia-laced reverie, as I recalled it, the Patriarch of Constantinople leads a restored Byzantine fleet up the Hellespont as the Turks slope back to the howling steppes of Tartary. A bejewelled Pophyrogenitos acknowledges the cheers from mackerel-crowded streets ashoreiarioi and logothetai,manglavitai and spatharokandidatoi unfurl the cross-and-betae flag in the shade of Haghia Sophia.

Vibrant and diverse, but not in a Whitechapel way.

In fact, Leigh Fermor wrote nothing of the sort, and his mild imagining of Dunkirk flotillas of Greek fisherman huddling in Anatolian harbours concluded with the cadence "But in the City itself, the throne of the Emperors was vacant..." (New York Review Books Classics edition, 2006, pp44-45). Old men forget, middle-aged ones spice it up.

Istanbul itself was bigger-hearted and smaller-headed than its imperial predecessor. It rained for five days, so I spent my time in nightclubs and catacombs. On the last day I tired of slouching in Western and Byzantine ruins, so flapped squeaking from the Basilica Cistern in urgent need of some bracing, ballbusting Turkish culture.

My cherished copy of the oft-banned "Discerning Gentleman's Guide to The Golden Horn" by Conrad Latto (Editions du Crépuscule, Maison Blanche, Algers, 1938) had recommended a nargile kiosk near the university as a "discrete and discreet entrepôt on the Forum Tauri, where herbal salves may be bargained from a Smyrniote Hebrew of saturnine mien".

Some enquiries among the tabacs maudits of Beyazit Square led me through a portico of booksellers to a raised wooden hexagon in a quiet courtyard. I slipped into a world of smoke and shutters, where leaden-lidded Anatolians tugged on serpentine hoses, a world of stoic near-silence.

Little troubled the hush but the rush of bubbles through water jars, the thrub of thoroughbred hooves from the televised racetrack, and an occasional click of tongue on teeth as a favourite fell behind.

The smokers sat on a bench that ran around the room, leaving a carpeted expanse to fill with their fumes. I perched, and a boy scurried to my side with hookah, apple tobacco and a light. The recumbent Turks flicked glances my way, and were as reassured as I when the coals started to smoulder and heavenly vapours invaded my head.

Carpet-toters, sheep-shavers, wood-carvers and copper-rattlers plied the route from hookah to bookmaker and back, backgammon sets unfolded like odalisques in state rooms, back vowels brushed against labials, and everyone was very male.

The tea boy would poke his cropped skull through the door every 20 minutes and chirrup "çay?" He'd count the barely-arched eyebrows and return with a matching tally of steaming tulip glasses.

Except in my case. He'd make a special journey across the kiosk to me, and ask in elaborate Ottoman whether I would honour his urn with the slaking of my thirst. "Er, gosh, thanks, a pleasure - no sugar!" I'd stammer, turning all Joyce Grenfell as Brits do when confronted with Levantine flummery.

An hour passed pleasantly, then in came a group of students from the university across the square. Two young men in what a cad would call "Balkan preppy", and a couple of blondes who must have been among the city's avid Harpers readers. They ordered hookahs and began a loud conversation. Within 15 minutes the nargiles lay neglected, their plates serving as ashtrays for the Crusader's Malboro Lights.

There's a moment in Billy Wilder films when the character achieves self-awareness - rather like the machines in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Comade Garbo trying on the fancy hat in Ninotchka is my favourite.

Something similar happened in that Bosphorus fumidor. The artisans cast a cold eye at the Young Turks, with their pastel shades, pashminas, filter tips and chit-chat, then considered the taciturn Frank in their midst. I toked the smoke, drank the tea and firmly did not talk any talk.

The sign that I had been accepted in a conditional way came from the teaboy, the Mini-Mabuse of this Expressionist mime. He strolled over to the students and asked whether they would like anything else. Then he turned in the doorway and gave the rest of the room a casual "çay?"

Although I boast two eyebrows, this time one of them was among the silent chosen. Never ask me which.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Mur i'r bur

You will all be familiar with the joke about the first Jewish President of the United States. He invites his retired mother up from Florida for the grand tour of the White House and Capitol Hill.

She's reluctant at first, what with shifty Miami taxi drivers, the likely impact of the flight on her ready reckoner of ailments, general concerns about humidity, shvartsers, etc. Mr President reassures her that it'll be Air Force One and limos all the way, and she'll be back home for bridge on Thursday.

The trip passes with less kvetching than expected by either party, and the First Mother is serenely seated at the green baize as Mrs Mandel deals the cards.

"Where did you go, Golda? We haven't seen you all week!" asks the hostess amid the rustling of perms.

"I stayed with my son," replied the Matriarch.

"Your son the optometrist?"

"No, the other one."

We've all been there. When my mother announces to the Cerigrafu branch of Merched Y Wawr (Provisionals) that she's spent a few days ironing wallpaper at her son's house, they always gasp "Your son, the War Mongrel?". Instead she dismisses her weekend at Casa Boyo with a "No, the English one".

I was brought up in the shadow of my younger brother, Steffan ap Morthwyl fab Boyo, years before he was born. There were omens on the witch-gaunt hills, you see - goats jabbered Psalms at passing Land Rovers, a girl in Rhydymain was delivered of a five-fingered child - that sort of thing.

Morthwyl, as we call him, was born smoking a roll-up in 1969, and again in 1970 by popular demand of the midwives.

Readers of Mrs Pouncer's diary will know that he has since acquired a "van, a chainsaw, a doberman and a selection of self-crafted tattoos in no known language", and that "his favourite words are 'Duw, fuck, aye, but', in that order. They are also about the only thing he's said for 35 years".

At some point in the 1980s he joined the Army. When asked why, he simply replied "Dykes, mun" and winked. Whatever discomfort Europe might have been planning for itself in that dayglo decade, Morthwyl was always there to make it worse.

On his occasional visits home he would appear in Emma's nightclub, stuff his kitbag under a table and go to sleep - on the understanding that all the VG Stores checkout girls, district nurses and gym teachers would have found some edible underwear and formed a queue in ascending order of volubility by the time he'd woken up.

I never stood a chance, especially after I disgraced the family by moving to England by bus and not armoured personnel carrier. Morthwyl has never entered a sovereign state without challenging its armed forces to at least an arm-wrestling match. Turkmenistan declared eternal neutrality in the early 1990s just in case.

But Morthwyl's finest moment came on 9th November 1989. A continent realised that Communism was doomed when East Germany showed it could not even disembowel itself efficiently. Sagging Stalinist Günter Schabowski told the half-nation that they could cross the borders in search of stone-washed jeans and decent beer whenever they liked.

His leering chief Egon Krenz had planned the Great Leap Over for the following morning, so that he and his lovely wife Erika could snap up the bargains in West Berlin that very evening, but failed to pass this detail on to Schabowski.

Within hours The Wall was no more, Germany got bigger without killing anyone for once, and John Le Carré began his entertaining descent into student politics.

It could have been very different. Morthwyl was on guard duty with the Royal Welch that evening, walking the line near Checkpoint Charlie. He loved patrolling The Wall, for it was as close as he could get to East Berlin - a city that reminded him of what Wales might one day become.

He saw crowds surging towards the barriers on the Eastern side and remembered his training - the Warsaw Pact will probably start the invasion by creating an incident. And suddenly here were masses of poorly-coiffed youths in drop-shoulder sweaters milling around like touts at a Bonnie Tyler gig.

One word formed in his mind - "fuck", by which he meant an "obvious smokescreen, behind which the close-shaven ranks of the Felix Dzerzhinsky Guards Regiment will shortly march into the barracks and nationalise my boombox. Fucking Frenchies!"

By 1989 the Soviet Union was in no shape to conquer a waitress at the Mumbles Pavilion Café, let along West Germany, but international relations were something that passed Morthwyl by without stopping to check their trouser pockets.

He was fixing his bayonet - to what exactly the court martial never revealed - when an officer tapped his shoulder and ordered him down to the checkpoint. There he spent the night handing out cups of coffee to ecstatic Ossies, who in return plied him with East German cigarettes. "What were those like?" I once asked. "Fuck," he replied.

I often wonder what might have been if my brother had carried out his one-man infantry charge into the ranks of distracted Volkspolizei. Would the hitherto disappointing Cold War have flared up around his ammo boots, taking the West by surprise and leaving the Ostblock in charge of the cinders from Bristol to the Baltic?

The poverty, grime and poor dentistry of the German Democratic Republic are largely forgotten by pigeon-chested progressives, but less talk and more action from Morthwyl might have brought its benefits to the New Statesman's subscribers in a way they'd still be thanking him for today, on this 20th anniversary celebration of his rise to power.

Comrade Chief of the People's General Staff Generalissimo Field Marshal S.M.Boyo would modesty acknowledge the stormy and protacted applause, rising to an ovation, from work collectives across the continent with a wise and watchful "aye".

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Starry Ticket

Snoopy the Goon (not one of the Ludlow Goon-Squads, I'm glad to say), has presented me with a mimetic challenge. Thus:

  • Write one superpower you would like to have and what you would do with it.
  • Write why you chose that super power over everything else.
  • Tag and link lots of people and write why you think they will have an interesting meme.
  • Fix your broken links.

I'll not tag any individuals as I don't want another cat fight for my favours unless it involves real cats, or selected female followers acting out the Bardot-Cardinale encounter:

And as for links, Madame Boyo keeps my chains well-oiled and secure, thanks.

And so to business. The only superpower I'd ever want is the Unbreakable Union of Free Republics that was the USSR. "Why not the Goddam' United States of these Americas, then?" you might ask, switching the 'baccy plug from one ingrown cheek to the other.

True, the USA would be a more pleasant entity with which to share your life, and therefore one that needs little guidance from me. Apart from giving up The Philippines and failing to flood Cuba with cheap TVs, it's hardly put a foot wrong.

Soviet Russia, on the other boot, missed chance after chance to make the world a cheerier place during its 70-year drunken lurch from feudal demense to oligarch's doormat, and now it's gone.

We Welsh have never let mere dimensions of time and space bother us before, so here's what I'd have done with the USSR and why:

1. Got Poland to Invade Germany. I may have made it up, but I'm sure I read somewhere that in 1933 Marszałek Piłsudski proposed to send some uhlans to Berlin and hang Hitler by his mono orchid, no questions asked, as long as Britain and France promised to go fishing that weekend. He got no answer, and the moment passed.

If he'd contacted me, Comrade General-Secretary Premier Boyovich in Moscow, I'd have applauded this initiative, offered him the rest of his homeland Lithuania, and thrown in a brace of Belarussian bison swamps as a gesture of Slavonic socialist solidarity.

A Europe without Herr Hitler would have been a more elegant and populous place, and my kind of Soviets could have made it happen. Also, there would be something
deliciously kinky about the Poles marching Unter die Linden.

2. Banned The Beatles. And Oasis too, if they and the Soviets had been mutually unlucky enough to overlap. Why? I like The Beatles, but they made string arrangements, bad poetry, sitars and Lord Paul of the McCartneys acceptable to
generations of Russians. The ensuing descent into Pink Floyd cultism was inevitable.

Pale loiterers sat around in frumpy housecoats pondering the meaning of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" while
picking lice out of their Buryat girlfriends' matted hair. The Kremlin happily let Beatles albums through customs once in a while, because this epic, Armenian bang-fuelled self-indulgence left the Young Guard with little time to organise counter-revolution.

I'd have kept the Northern monkeys out and turned Red Youth onto The Stones. Ripped-off blues, elliptical drumming, a vocabulary of 15 words, smack, proper birds like Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg - that's a national curriculum for the sort of strutting, street-fighting little scuzzballs needed to keep a proper superpower on its toes.

And, above all, no one would have sat next to me at parties, pointed at the 8-track of "Gimme Shelter" and asked "what is Mick really trying to tell us here?"

3. Sold Guns to Israel. Big ones. Just to watch George Galloway's head explode, in a good way.

No tags, as I say, but what would you have done with the Soviet Union if you'd had the chance? Nazis and members of the House of Romanov need not apply.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Plant y Cerrig

"Nid yw hi'n amhosib yn yr oes sydd ohoni i ailddarganfod hen ysbryd meddylgar y derwydd a'r dderwyddes. Ie wir, mae'n hanfodol".

Some fireside Phalangists have complained about a plaque recently unveiled on Primrose Hill, London, in honour of Welsh poet, antiquarian and geezer Iolo Morganwg.

In a touching display, Mr Malcolm Kafetz of the Friends of Regents Park feat. Primrose Hill blustered that a crook and forger like Iolo deserved no such memorial on his manor. In our Welsh world it is precisely because he crooked and forged with such panache that Iolo deserves to be remembered.

The Welsh language lacks native words for "private", "honest" and "locked car-door", so the narrow Saxon mind takes this as a Sapir-Whorf sign of our leanings towards larceny. On the contrary, it indicates our 360º altruism - not only are we generous with our own goods, but we are also ready to share the credit of others:

  • Classical Colossus Ralph Vaughan-Williams said he never had any conscience about cribbing intermissions and riffs from other composers;
  • An entire suburb of Chester woke up in Flintshire not so long ago; and
  • The list of warlords, public gatherings and geographical features claimed by Cambria includes Marshal Timoshenko, Johann Sebastian Bach (but not the other Bäche), the Mandan tribesmen of Missouri and England itself.

It is therefore quite in keeping with our national sacra for Iolo to have shared the wealth of his imagination with the pinched world of Primrose Hill. Mr Kafetz might call him a "bankrupt and a forger. A bloody criminal", but Iolo dealt in a currency more choice than the Hanoverian ha'penny, and what he forged was not merely a sheaf of sprung rhythms but a complete Celtic cosmology. All Welsh, all ours, and all made up.

HP Lovecraft wrote that slobbering sacks of brackish bile created our world just for jolly, and would tramp through a crack in the firmament one day to stamp us back into the brine. So did Iolo Morganwg dream that our own Druidic Elders had outlasted the Roman and his troubles, weaving our own era into the oak garlands of theirs as if Marcher Lords and monks had been a passing parson's fancy.

This web blog is more Gerry than Benedict Anderson, but the latter got it right with his "Imagined Communities". Iolo could have sliced a swathe through the Silurian sludge by concocting Owain Glyndŵr's last Will and Testament, or claiming a Tudor lineage for some clubable drone with a couple of hundred arces near Harlech.

But instead he had the class to base our national story on the Druids - skirted dope-fiends who organised military resistance to Caesar by getting naked and talking tactics with a space badger they met while chomping their way through a field of fly agaric.

Many modern nationalisms are built on the exterminatory ecstasies of paper-lipped professors, so an epos propped up by a few pagan porkies is all right by me. While some celebrate invasions, conversions, displacements and defenestrations, we have an annual toga party and give one another big wooden chairs for the best poem.

All this was thanks to Iolo and his Fitzrovia drinking pals, and they first tried it out on domed Primrose Hill.

As Danny Abse said of his fellow bard, "He was a great, great scholar, and he fooled everybody. I don't know if he was a drug addict, but he was certainly the best poet that went to Cardiff jail."

And that's a worthy plaque inscription if I ever heard one.

(Pointy black hat doffed to The Dog of Deceit (and Hypocrisy), who found the copy of the Camden News Journal in the Dutch Window public house and brought it to the Cymru Rouge Historical Grievances Department that I may get a better look at it.)

Monday, September 28, 2009

My Universities: Socialist Gigolo

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

My Father Was a Wandering Aramean

Inkspot's mother-in-law is a Bessarabian Warshawski, not to be confused with the frightful Ludlow Warshawskis.

"Bessarabia" set me thinking about names that linger after the places that once claimed them have moved on. For those of you who weren't condemned by a rash choice of university course to study the meanderings of East European borders, Bessarabia was a province of Wallachia and the Empires both Ottoman and Russian that played a walk-on role in Greater Romania before vanishing back into the Soviet wings in 1940.

It lurched onto the international stage as an independent country in 1991 only to topple over the footlights into the orchestra pit, where most of it remains today. One county - Bolgrad - is still touring with Ukraine, and another has struck out on a solo career as the proudly rogue state of Transdniestria, of which more later.

Still never heard of it? That's not surprising, as the Bessarabians decided to ditch their good old name and opt to call themselves "Moldova" instead.

I can understand why "Bessarabia" no longer appealed:

  • The history associated with the name was grisly;

  • It reminded the locals of their erstwhile Jewish neighbours and their annoying dance craze; and

  • Anywhere called "Arabia" is suspect these days, whatever fancy adjective you put in front of it.

    • But there are problems with "Moldova" too. Not only is it already the name of the adjacent province in Romania, but Bessarabia/Moldova was part of that very same province in 1918-1940. Doesn't strike me as a sign of self-confidence or imagination if you borrow the name of the next parish along. Nor has the fancy new name brought the Moldovans much luck.

      What it has done, however, is give the Romanian province of Moldova the chance to reclaim the far superior monicker of "Moldavia". This is what the Soviets called Bessarabia/Moldova from 1940 to 1991, when the name came up for grabs again. "Moldavia" sounds like a real country, as it has the tell-tale "ia" ending that marks out exotic lands ruled by princelings with caddish uniforms.

      It also sounds like "Moravia", a real place that you might actually want to visit, and this gives the low Romanians a chance to lure yet more tourists to their twilit land of roadkill cuisine.

      ">Transdniestria", a dangling bacon rind of Russian arms dumps, war criminals and lumpy women in knitted berets, lacks the audacity to call itself "The Soviet Union", as it dearly would love to, and missed the chance to claim "Bessarabia".

      Instead it has chosen a name that emphasises where it is not, not what it is. "So who are you lot then?" sighs the weary UN admissions mandarin. "Can't say, but I'll tell you where we're not - we're not in the River Dniester. We're beyond it!"

      "Jolly good," says Sir Tarquin, steering the Representative from Tiraspol towards the Sub-Carpathian Ruthenians, Cisalpinians and Sahrawis of the West, all playing with glitter and spittle at the special-needs table.

      "Jordan" dropped the "Trans" as soon as it became a kingdom, and Transylania only won the endorsement of demented Nipponese squirrels when it rebranded itself Sylvania. Wise moves from countries going places, while Transdniestria can't even persuade anyone to spell it right:

      You will find "Transnistria", "Trans-Dniester", "Dniester Republic", "Pridnestrovie" or - my favourite – "Unităţile Administrativ-Teritoriale din Stînga Nistrului". The gang of onion-breathed spivs who run the place prefer Pridnestrovie or Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republicto be posh. These people are not doing themselves any favours.

      Africa, the continent that gave us the Nigerian bank scam, shows these blunt-fingered Slavs how it should be done. Newly-independent colonies were eager to shake off the dreadful titles various moody explorers had given them. Rhodesia was named after an ill-favoured invert, the Gold Coast practically screamed "Come and despoil us, please!", and you somehow feel that the malarial Haut Commissaire who came up with "The French Territory of Afars and Issas" wasn't putting his heart into it.

      So the plucky young kleptocrats gave notice of their relaxed, marimba-influenced attitude to the property of others by appropriating the names of more edifying countries located some distance away in either space or time. Most daring of all was Comrade Nkrumah of the Gold Coast.

      The historical Ghana Empire was much further north than his new state, but so generous was Nkrumah's pan-African spirit that he even managed to become president of an entirely different country - Guinea - once he'd spent all of Ghana's gelt.

      A prime example of a country that got it wrong was Persia. A cloddish Cossack colonel ousted the agreeably sybaritic Qajar dynasty in the 1920s and decided that racialism was the next big thing, so he renamed that perfumed land "Iran", as in "Aryan". Reza Shah seemed not to know or care that the neighbouring country was already called "Iraq", thereby sowing confusion among sub-editors at the BBC house magazine Ariel for some time to come.

      Iraq itself, of course, once gloried in the title "Mesopotamia", but that didn’t really work in Arabic and Wise King Feisal wasn’t an Oxford man. Saddam Hussein, George Galloway, the godly but unlettered President Bush and thousands of bearded maniacs have ensured that the name "Iraq" is now almost exclusively associated with beastly behaviour, so I suggest that Mr Talabani and his chums in Baghdad should simply relaunch the country as "Persia".

      Bingo! They persuade Notting Hill types to buy their carpets and annoy the haughty Tehranis with one stroke of the legislative scimitar.

      In the same over-amplified soundbox of ancient grievances, those silver-tongued charmers in Israel just can't stop their neighbours wishing violent death upon them. I propose that they should drop not only the name but all geographical denominators and simply appropriate the title "Nelson Mandela".

      Let's face it, the old boy won't be needing it for much longer, and Friday Prayers won't go down so well with Tristram and Jocasta Trustafarian when they echo to the Federation of Conservative Students' chant of "Death to Nelson Mandela!" C'mon Mr Netanyahu, it's not as if you've got any bright ideas of your own, is it?

      And it doesn't stop there. No one takes Poland seriously.Polnische Wirtschaft,"Dude, Where's Your Country?", worst alphabet in Europe, noblemen with no underpants, pickled cabbage, charging down Panzers on horseback, madder-than-average women - it's not a good image. So why not take the long-vacant name of "Prussia"?

      After all, Poland at the time of writing (1051 gmt, 16 September 2009) is located on much of historic Prussia. And say what you like about that Millwall of the German Empire, no one found it in the slightest bit amusing when the Junkers came a-calling.

      Last and as usual least comes our own beloved Wales. "Wales? is dat the big fish or dem singing bastards?", as a New York cabbie once asked Sir Geraint Evans en route to the Met. I tell you now that we are going nowhere fast if we continue to call ourselves "Nancy Latinate foreigners" in Old High German and risk being confused with Moby Dick - by which I mean the marine leviathan, not the Cornish porn star.

      We could insist that everyone calls us “Cymru”, but that would put us back on the blunt-scissors table with Myanmar and places with names that just don't work in other languages. We could go all Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and resurrect "Cambria" and "Gwalia",but my preference is for a stunning bit of thievery.

      Just as that gobshite Bono reclaimed Helter Skelter from Charles Manson, when it had belonged to The Beatles all along, I propose that we rename Wales "Britain". The United Kingdom doesn't use the title much since Lady Thatcher was gently steered off to the Whisky Transfusion Clinic, and the English seem to have dropped it in favour of the original Beserker "Ingerland".

      For one thing, it'll be difficult for Unionist Tories and Kinnockites to refuse to be "Backing Britain", and since when did anyone "Brit" on a bet? Lovely.

      Thursday, September 03, 2009

      My Heart is in the Marshlands

      The quadrant-hatted Polack knows not where his borders lie
      He bows down to the Virgin but the truth he can't descry
      His dung-breathed Lettish neighbours lead him on a merry dance
      While every passing Teuton deftly kicks him in the pants.

      This disgraceful quatrain from the Edwardian hymn "God Is in His English Heaven" was penned as a rhyming tool in the sacred and profane education of Marcher youth, but still imparts some poignant truths about the history, culture and couture of the Poles.

      It struck me that news coverage of the anniversary of the outbreak of war in 1939 has concentrated on the doings of Germany and Russia, rather than those of Poland - much as did the Second World War itself. This comes as no surprise to Poles, who are used but not reconciled to their roaming homeland being turned into a trampoline, vomitorium and crematorium by noxious neighbours.

      I have given some account of my dealings with that splendid nation before, but the anniversary of the war brings to mind the events of 1989 in the swamp full of bison piss that the Poles call their border counties (Kresy) and the people who live there call Lithuania and bits of Belarus and/or Ukraine.

      "Lithuania, my Fatherland!" ("Litwo! Ojczyzno moja!") is the stirring phrase that both launches the Polish national epic, Pan Tadeusz, and neatly sums up the problem Lithuanians have with it. They could always counter by writing an epos called Uncle Andrius that begins "Warszaw is my parking space", but I suspect that it would lose them the moral high ground.

      Poland has generally prefered the geographical high ground, and sent General Żeligowski to remind the Lithuanians of this in 1920. Most military revanchistes would seize an outlying province or two, but Żeligowski showed the true élan of a Polish Uhlan by capturing the capital, Vilnius, and leaving the Liths with the consolation prize of the rest of the country.

      Interwar Lithuania was unlucky enough to be governed by a pair of feuding college professors called Voldemaras and Smetona, whose verbal felicity proved no match for the sabre-gnashing cavalry of Poland's Marshal Piłsudski - a man who escaped German captivity in the Great War by feigning insanity with the greatest of ease.

      The Marszałek decided to bury his own heart in Vilnius (his more cautious aides persuaded him to leave it until after his death), and he assumed that Lithuania would find this grande geste unanswerable.

      Perhaps they did. History records, however, that the bluff plebian Stalin did not. After overrunning the Kresy in 1939 he gave Lithuania back its capital, only to seize the entire country a few months later in an extreme example of loan-sharking as applied to international diplomacy.

      Lithuanian history was on hold for 50 years of Soviet misrule until I turned up in Vilnius in a borrowed Chaika limousine as interpreter for a Vassar-educated dominatrix with a mercantile interest in local ballerinas.

      The lady in question earned her living as an impressario, and decided to scour the western bulge of the Soviet Empire in the hope of signing up the talented, underexposed and seriously hot ballet troupes for tours of the filthy West.

      This was a good idea in principle, undermined by the local satraps' inability to understand the concept of an exclusive contract or what I was saying. My Russian wasn't bad on the whole, but a combination of cheap beverages and undiscerning company left me fading in and out of coherence, audibility and consciousness for most of the time.

      Miss Vassar had tired of negotiations with the turtle-faced bureaucrats of Belarus, and told me to arrange travel forthwith to Soviet Lithuania, its well-regarded national ballet theatre and affordable leather goods.

      I decided not to mention that Lithuania had declared independence a few weeks back, and that President Gorbachev had responded by imposing a blockade of the republic. This didn't worry the Lithuanians much, as their only imports from Russia were more Russians.

      Their slogan at the time was "Beat the blockada with the lambada!", a marginally more practical approach than the Voldemaras/Smetona tactic of intimidating the Soviet Army with quotations from Virgil, but it wasn't likely to help us cross the border. I could imagine how louche and un-Socialist our reasons for entering Lithuania and, with luck, a few Lithuanians might sound to an austere KGB border guard with more bullets than witnesses.

      I decided to go by the book and called the Minsk KGB. "Good morning, KGB," said the young lady in an encouraging display of glasnost. "Hello, No Good Boyo," I replied, before setting out our plans. The young lady said there would be no problem as long as our documents were in order. I hung up in the sure and certain knowledge that several months on a tuberculosis refresher course awaited any attempt to cross the border by normal means, and so had a word with a resourceful local friend.

      He was that most elusive of creatures, a cunning Belarussian. He hired us a Chaika limo and liveried driver. "Sit in the back of this baby and it's a brave border guard who stands in your way," he grinned, fondling the fins of the regional Communist Party's favourite ride. And he was right. Our driver maintained the correct speed of measured authority as we trundled past emaciated conscripts in the dank forests of Aschemynne.

      His pace faltered through the speckled hills of Vilnius, however, and we realised that he'd never been to the city and had no idea where the ballet theatre might be. "Drive into the centre, my good man, and leave the rest to me," I drawled.

      In the hope of a few dollars more I'd bought a Lithuanian dictionary and memorised a few key phrases - "Good day!", "A beer? Why, thank you!", "And your sister is where, exactly?", "I wish to report this female American spy, Comrade Colonel", and "Excuse me, where is the ballet theatre?"

      I cast a basilisk eye over the tracksuited trolls on the swollen sidewalks until the ideal couple glided into view. A pair of distinguished pensioners, his silver hair capped with a beret and hers with a pillbox hat, their stately gait spoke of hardback books, antique pianos and a non-predatory interest in the performing arts.

      We pulled over, and I tried out The Phrase. "Aciprašau," I bowed, "kur yra baleto teatras?"

      The gentleman blinked slowly, turned to his wife and asked "What did he say?"

      In Polish.

      These heirs of General Żeligowski had lived in Vilnius all their lives, from Tsar to Stalin and beyond, and to them the Lithuanians and their Sanskrit-for-Hayseeds language was no more than a passing irritant, like decimal coinage and Labour governments to my parents.

      Being a Welsh I am used to people living in our midst without mastering more than a few curses in our native tongue, and so I switched to Polish and asked again where the ballet theatre might be. They gave me detailed instructions, which I repeated to the driver.

      We drew up outside a sturdy Art Deco edifice near the city centre. Perhaps ballet was considered a lewd spectacle among the Papist Liths, but I was still surprised to see no sign of tutus, firebirds or six-foot homosexuals in eyeliner. We sent the driver in to light out the territory.

      "It's the registry office," he reported five minutes later. "Births, marriages, deaths, tractor adoptions - that sort of thing. The ballet theatre was here in the 1930s, but it was moved to a new building decades ago."

      Decades ago - the last time my Polish guides had gone to the ballet. A time when the dancers still pranced purely in Polish.

      You have to admire this dedication to self-delusion, without which no beleaguered people can hope to survive. The Polish national anthem includes the line "Bonaparte has shown us the way to victory". Indeed, we all have much to learn from his fate.

      Wednesday, August 26, 2009

      Do You Believe in the Welshworld?

      Another year, another notch of recognition on the bedstead of glory. The Welsh people as one have promoted me from Tenth Welshest Blog Ever to 47th Most Currently Cambrian Chatterato. Thank you all.

      How the bell curve can that be progress, you ask? The number of Welsh web bloggers has increased exponentially in the past 13 months, as unemployment makes hunching over your computer in a Hong Kong Phooey dressing gown (minus bandana) a credible career option.

      To be 47th in this teeming pool of opinions, lists of random things and ineptly-embedded video clips is both more intense and more significant an achievement than, as Madame Boyo put it, gaining plaudits from a baker's dozen of slackers who are probably related to me anyway.

      On receiving my last award, I set out the following Two-Year Plan:

      • My ambitions for the next two years of blogging? Well, first up, I don't want the celebrity to ruin me. No tabloid rumours about Duffy seen leaving my shed in the early hours, no freebasing Brains and cockles in John Malkovich's hotel.
      • I'm happy with Mrs Boyo and her threats of unnecessary surgical procedures.
      • Otherwise, I want to clamber up the Wikio Top Ten like a bandwith-drooling zombie until I reign supreme over the deleted comments of mine enemies.

      So far so good. With 11 months still to go I've not had any quality time with the Nefyn Nightingale or Big Bad John, or even Charlotte Church for that matter.

      Mrs Boyo and I have rubbed along well enough to grace Wales with a masculine child, thereby ensuring that the Line of Boyo will continue the work of Glyndŵr, Mabon and Shakin' Stevens.

      And I have no enemies, merely friends I haven't yet annoyed.

      So what does the future hold for the Boyo Media Foundation?

      I'm not one for senseless dreams, but it's fair to say that my Olympian public profile makes a Senedd, or indeed Westminster, seat on the Cymru Rouge (Round Table - Fuck England) ticket pretty much inevitable.

      A busy parliamentary career as the sole true opposition to Bernsteinian ameliorationists, bourgeois nationalists, Tory ponces and that Estonian sex-maniac in Montgomery will not distract me from blogging.

      The new emerging media are confounding their critics by playing a pivotal role in the struggle for human dignity, from the live-bloggers of Rangoon to the Twitter protests of Tehran.

      As these innovations reach maturity and come to supplement and stimulate the established media, it is more important than ever that there are still some of us out there letting the side down.

      I pledge to the people of Wales that I shall not cease from recounting my abuse of Soviet hospitality, fatal cocktail recipes, inaccurate film reviews, scorn for the public-spirited and desire to mate with various fading, and in some cases deceased, 1960s celebrities.

      In a very real sense, it is the least I can do.

      Monday, August 24, 2009

      A Tonic for the Troops

      Storm clouds are gathering once again over the blank slab of England's face:
      • Our Boys are facing the Mahdi of Qandahar with nought but Italian rifles and licquorice bootlaces;

      • Scotchmen are trying to trump the Cymru Rouge in the terrorist-friendly stakes; and

      • Bankruptcy threatens millions of gamblers as England win the Ashes.
      When Jerry last tried to tattoo his "von und zu" in artillery fire on the White Cliffs of Dover, there was one special lady whose steadfast voice and quintessential English chic clenched the national fist in Dirndl-denying defiance.

      The time has come for that lady, who's still with us, to return to the prow of the ship of state and show Kate Winslet and our other assorted, ill-shaven foes why God Almighty chose this and no other island to make his home.

      Yes, I am proposing that Her Majesty's Government should honour England's Orchid with an annual Fennella Fielding Day.

      All the womenfolk of England shall on that day undertake to speak, dress, coiff and smoke like La Fielding:

      This will boost our flagging birthrate, tutor slouched youth in the ways of deportment, improve our fraught relations with the fine, tobacco-curing nations of Virginia and the Near East, and put paid to the common foreign prejudice that all the daughters of Albion are lobster-hued, over-amplified lushes.

      Imagine the scene: The nurse winds her way through the chaises-longues and aspidistras at the Shepherd's Bush Home for Thespiennes Distinguées with a tray of morning pick-me-ups.

      She calls out "O where is Miss Fielding?", only to be met by row upon row of alabaster vamps in vermillion velvet, each growling "I'm Fennella Fielding - no, I'm Fennella Fielding!"

      Drop videos of that among the mountains of Tora Bora and watch Messrs Bin Laden, Al Qaeda and their ilk show a clean pair of sandals for perhaps the first time in their lives.

      The Downfall of the Afridis is Assured.

      Tuesday, August 04, 2009

      Siehst du den Mond über Soho?

      Nothing makes the morning grechka at Casa Boyo crackle, pop and fume more agreeably than reading of the humiliation of BBC grandees - preferably at the heels of latex-clad Japanese twins, but the clammy maw of the British airport gulag will do.

      David, the Teddy Kennedy of the dismal Dimbleby Clan, was caught trying to fly on Poteenair to some drab French burg the other day, and displayed an endearing lack of awareness by whining about the poor service - in short there was no flight - to the civilian, non-BBC world.

      No gentleman flies in any aeroplane smaller than a jumbo or larger than a Learjet, unless it's armed and the Hun is up to his tricks again. Only the national carriers of monarchies are to be trusted - except the Dutch, of course.

      I'm not a Calvinist, and so happily make an exception to this rule. That exception is a small Ukrainian airline of such radiance that the lustre has blotted out its name from the smooth surface of my mind.

      It operated out of Lviv/Lvov/Lwów/Lemberg/לעמבערג, in the charming western fringe of Ukraine that's like Poland but with vowels and a sense of historical perspective restored, and may still do so for all I know.

      I encountered Air Karpaty (I think) in Belarus. A glance at the map shows that Belarus is made up of the bits of Eastern Europe that none of its neighbours much wanted. When the accordion expired in the post-Soviet game of musical chairs, the bemused farmers, ballerinas and manufacturers of exploding television sets who live in the area found themselves with nothing to sit on but ther own polyester-clad rumps.

      They tried to be independent for three years, but have since petitioned Russia to annex them as a sort of cabbage patch cum missle-testing ground for Smolensk Region. Muscovite rulers from Yeltsin to the little new chap in the insurance-salesman suit have toyed with Alexander Lukashenko, the bumpkin dictator of Belarus, like a tabby with a week-old kipper, and no one seems to mind.

      As I recounted earlier, the Belarussian nationalists of 1919 could have been accommodated on a modest sofa, and their modern heirs would be lucky to find themselves perched on anything so comfortable - especially after their mitten-pawed attempt to oust Lukashenko in the "Potato Revolution" of 2006.

      So what brought me to Minsk, its clod of a capital, in 2004? A need to cure myself of nostalgia for the Soviet Union. I was living in Kiev, a 24-hour booze'n'broads kind of town even before the Beautiful People beat the trolls in the Orange Revolution, and sometimes found myself pining for the old Commie joys of dancing in tiny kitchens with bulbous, floral-print women to the cardboard-guitar twang of a bearded vodka-blotter in a check shirt.

      As a Marxist I am alert to the dangers of sentimental yearning for a past that never was, and booked myself a duty trip to Belarus at once.

      The cure worked. Four days of being kicked out of one of the city's four functioning pubs at 1100 pm was a salutary experience, especially as the hotel bar was booked solid by the local Irritable Prostitutes' Convention.

      The local beers rated poorly on taste and oblivion, but did treat thrush. Everyone was drunk in a borderline alarming way, and the two permitted television channels shut down at midnight after an evening of pornless war films and optimistic harvest forecasts.

      So I turned up at Minsk-1 Airport, eager for the flight back to Sodom-on-the Dnieper. After all, the flight to Minsk from Kiev had been a display of one-upmanship on the part of Belavia, the Belarussian national carrier.

      It had sent a massive Airbus to ferry eight people 45 minutes across the rotting tree stumps of the River Sozh, with sulky models dispensing Nescafé and a bun to each of us dauphins of the air.

      In this way President-for-Life Lukashenko was telling his louche Ukrainian neighbours "Yes, we have no coastline or proper shoes, but we can send giant flying machines into the skies above your fancy capital with its street lights and shops! Flying machines empty but for the rustle of stockings on upholstery - stockings made by the Svitanak Underwear and Tank Parts Plant of Hero-City Brest! Behold the wealth and might of Belarus and think about it, you drunken Cossack bastards!"

      The plane had just reached cruising altitude when it had to plunge into its descent to Minsk-2 International Airport. This cavern of golems is located so far from the city that the gas-powered taxi ride takes longer than the flight.

      Belarus is a land of extremes, but only in terms of metropolitan airport location. Minsk-2 is virtually in Lithuania, while Minsk-1 is right in the city centre. It looks like a Stalinist bus shelter, check-in is conducted at a portable trestle table, the departure lounge is the corridor through which arriving passengers trudge with their treasured boxes of flour and radioactive chickens, and the runway seems to cross a school playground (no take-off or landing at lunchtime or mid-morning).

      The whole procedures took 20 minutes. The border guard was so excited to see a real foreign passport ("You are not Ukrainian pervert!") that he brought his boss down to marvel at its possibly Papist lettering, colour photograph and non-smudge ink.

      Then I and three back-bacon merchants from Zaporizhzhya picked our way through the battered toys on the runway to a stretch crop-sprayer with "Air KapRaty airlanes" crayoned over an "Ivanovo Petrochem Ltd" stencil on the side.

      A blowsy blonde divorcée in what looked like a strippogram nurse's oufit goosed us up the steps into a cabin recently decorated by the Herat Guild of Blind Smackhead Carpetweavers. After some random Ukrainian hawking noises over the intercom, we bunny-hopped into the lignite haze above Minsk and off towards the parliamentary democracy and nude shushi parlours of Ukraine.

      The maneating stewardess wiggled among us with plump fists full of vodka minatures as we settled into our purloined cinema seats. "Lunch is chicken or meat product. Which would you prefer, young man?" she breathed in a manner that suggested a correct answer would usher me into a world of unknown pleasures. I opted for the poulet and escaped with only minor harassment and glancing frottage. The plane bounced from hedgerow to arms dump at an altitude of 600-700 feet.

      But that's not the best of it. We were airborne for about an hour. In that time we each received three vodka apéritifs, a reasonable cooked meal, and a choice of wine. "I'll have the white," I told the flight crew as she pretended two bottles of Moldovan plonk were her ear-rings in a performance of disturbing coquetry. She unscrewed the chablis with her teeth, winked, rubbed the merlot against her blouse "to warm it up" and gave me that too. I felt reassured that the other three passengers got both bottles as well.

      Once the meal was over she came around again with more vodka. When we landed, the co-pilot wandered through the cabin doling out cans of Obolon lager and mumbling hopes that we had enjoyed our flight. "Yessir!" we replied, and asked him and his charming sister where else Air Karpaty flew. He waved his arms skywards. "Around," he said, saluted and sauntered off.

      And they didn't even steal our baggage.

      Tuesday, July 28, 2009

      Not Great Men

      Grey clouds scudded across the foam of Champion's Freckled Johnson. I raised the pint to eager lips, and then to my own.

      The K-Man was building an Antifaschistische Schutzgrenze of ashtrays between himself, the Dog and Fuelrod. It was lunchtime down the Tethered Goat.

      Dazza disentangled his moustaches from a sandwich and sighed. "The latest Iranian Revolution is all over."

      we chorused.

      "U2 are supporting the Tehran protesters. It's all over."

      We knew what Dazza meant. The Iranian Propaganda Ministry television documentary would write itself:

      [Five minutes of Bono gobbing on, green flag in hand atop a giant speaker, while a crowd of Fanta-crazed Irish teens wonder whether the video backdrop of militant Iranian youth is the new single.]

      [Dead-eyed TV announcer] Dear viewers, this ill-informed Nazarene dwarf is the foreign leader of those who would criticize our God-ordained system. We asked Professor Margbarian of Tehran's University of Occlusion to explain why...

      Meanwhile, in garrets, salons and cafés throughout Iran, stormy petrels of democracy see support seep away:

      "Maryam, Reza, you coming to the demo today? We've got the nutters on the run. One more push, know what I'm saying?"

      "Well, I think I'll give it a miss this morning. Got a lot on, y'know."

      "Whaddyou mean? Oh..., hang on. It's because of Bono, isn't it?"

      "Sorry. Freedom's all very well, but I've got my rep to think of. U2, for The Hidden Imam's sake! Even my little brother was laughing at me, and he likes Steps!"

      "Maryam's right. It's over, man. Bono dropped the big one."

      The Revolution That Died of Shame.

      The success of any political movement depends a great deal on celebrity backing, or the prevention thereof. Musicians, novelists and lingerie models are as fickle and brittle as butterflies, and must be netted gently with bright colours and primary flavours.

      Take Cuba, for example. Nasty, nasty government. Doesn't like gay people, trade unions and other good things. On the other hand, also dislikes America and mobile phones. This, coupled with a good climate, memorable flag, hip-gyratin' indigenous music and a positive attitude to drinking and smoking, attracts all sorts of blues-tinged endorsements.

      And learn from Nicaragua's mistakes. The Sandinistas were doing so well. They worked their way through the Cuban checklist, racked up The Clash and Billy Bragg, but then - disaster. They got the unbidden endorsement of Glenys "Bloody" Kinnock, and were swiftly ousted.

      The price of power is ceaseless cultivation of your public image. One Kinnock can undo the work of a thousand Bianca Jaggers.

      I witnessed a neat display of chaos deflection in Ukraine, during the Glorious Orange Revolution of 2004. Mr Yushchenko and his band of well-dentured Westernisers were set for victory:

      • The outgoing government were a bunch of malodorous Morlocks being ridden through sewers of corruption by President Putin;

      • Ukraine's decent singing stars - Talita Kum, Vopli Vidopliassova, Ruslana - were all Orange, while Ukraine's singing dinosaurs - Taisia Povaliy, Iozif Kobzon, Natasha Mogilevskaya - were for the evil old Commies; and

      • The Orangemen had a snappy anthem, decent PA systems and wives who didn't look like they'd service you in a pedestrian underpass for a fistful of dried fish.

      I was having a drink one evening with an influential pro-Orange music producer (yes, I both rock and roll) when he received a worrying phone call:

      "Bono and Sting want to big up the Orange Revolution on MTV."

      "Oh God, can you stop them?"

      "No, but I can divert them."

      There followed some spectacular telephonic ego-massages, which amounted to persuading the publicists of the Leather-Trousered Ones that they did have an important role to play in Ukraine. But that role didn't mean endorsing one side or the other in a "difficult, nay explosive situation", but rather in issuing a sober call to calm.

      Only one thing is more attractive to pop singers than being La Pasionaria, and that's being Secretary-General of the UN. Understated, measured, classic, like a good suit.

      Sure enough, these absurd minstrels gazed solemnly into the MTV cameras and said they hoped the people of Ukraine, both black and white, would resolve their differences through over-amplified jangly guitar riffs and cod-jazz sung in a vaguely insulting Jamaican accent.

      We had gazed into the abyss, but its denizens had put their shades back on and splashed off in pursuit of shinier prey.

      This is a lesson that we in the Cymru Rouge have learned well. In the event of a British Socialist Revolution, this is the advice we shall offer to our struggling comrades in Bragggrad (formerly London):

      At first world opinion will be with you. The break-up of the big estates, the expulsion of the Windsors (apart from Prince Andrew's fun-loving daughters), the closure of US air bases, the adoption of the bass-line of "The Guns of Brixton" as the national anthem - everyone loves this sort of stuff.

      But then things will get trickier. The reconquest of Ireland, the jailing of all Guardian and Independent journalists under the repressive "Git Laws", the numerus clausus on Scotchmen in the National Assembly and BBC, compulsory independence for Wales - these will trouble bien-pensants and editorial writers throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

      That's when you carry out your masterstroke. Bono and Sting will declare their support for the Revolution, and fly into Aneurin Bevan (formerly Heathrow) International Airport, possibly in aeroplanes, to do their bit for the People. You will have them summarily shot on the runway, and send their Amazonian tribal singers back home to tell the tale.

      Cut to plush apartments in Le Marais, Manhattan, and Malmo:

      "There's a demo outside the British Embassy this afternoon. Free Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, that sort of thing. You coming?"

      "Not sure."

      "What! The imperialists are stealing the Revolution! It's like Cromwell all over again. We've got to stop them through the deployment of placards, and we've got to do it NOW!"

      "Yeah, I know they're bastards and everything, but they did shoot Bono and Sting, didn't they."

      "Yeah, they did do that... Maybe they need a little time to let things settle down."

      "Some breathing space."


      "...I heard Bob Geldof's off to London soon."