Category Archives: Yugoslavia

Six days in March: mafiosi in Prague, war in Serbia, Yanks in Amsterdam and a flying saucer in the Thames Valley

I have no time to transcribe the blog I should be writing today so, as always in such cases, you get a copy-and-paste from my e-diary – in this case, starting today 16 years ago in 1999


MONDAY 22nd MARCH 1999 – AMSTERDAM

Amsterdam (Photo by Massimo Catarinella)

Amsterdam (Photo by Massimo Catarinella)

There are precipitous stairs up to my new hotel. This, as with other houses in Amsterdam, is because there are two storeys below the two-storey hotel and people live vertically because, at one time, house tax was based on the width of your house so everything was built narrow.

The hotel is run by two thin gay men, probably in their late-40s or mid-50s, heavily wrinkled like white prunes.

The room has a brown carpet, pink bedsheets and bedspread; high light green walls with horizontal hanging ivy atop one of them. When trams pass, there is a thunderous rattling through the tall, single-glazed window. I think I may move soon.

TUESDAY 23rd MARCH – AMSTERDAM

Dinner with the Englishman who runs the TV station where I am freelancing. We previously worked together at TV stations in Prague in 1994 and 1995. He says Prague has changed since I was there; the various foreign mafias have taken over large sections of society; it started, he says, with the privatisation of taxis. The TV operation we both worked for in Prague was sold (at a loss) by UIH to Time-Warner last week; but, in return, UIH got Time-Warner cable interests in Hungary and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Eastern Europe has become the new Wild West.

WEDNESDAY 24th MARCH – AMSTERDAM

Dinner with three workmates. One of them observed that the Dutch give a bad time to Germans – shop assistants are coldly difficult to them in shops etc – because of the Second World War. As we ate, NATO planes and cruise missiles were starting to attack Yugoslavia/Serbia/Montenegro/Kosovo.

THURSDAY 25th MARCH – AMSTERDAM

In McDonalds, the assistant was giving a hard, contemptuous time to a well-dressed family of Russians who spoke very bad English.

FRIDAY 26th MARCH – AMSTERDAM

At breakfast in the hotel, there was an American couple: he was wide and tall like some American Football player, she was much smaller and much younger. The TV was tuned to BBC1 News. The American couple had missed the start of the bombing of Serbia, presumably because they were travelling around. Their abbreviated conversation went:

Him: “What’s going on?”

Me: “NATO has started bombing Serbia.”

Her: “What’s NATO?”

Him: “North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. It’s…what is it?…The big six?” (LOOKS AT ME)

Me: (CONFUSED)

Her: “I thought that was just a trade organisation.”

Him: “No, it does some policing, too.”

At Schiphol Airport in the evening, there was a group of very jolly people in their 20s – about a dozen – on the travelator in front of me. It turned out they were going to my Gate. And they were drunk – amiable, jolly and drunk. It came as no surprise they were travelling on Finnair to Helsinki as the only times I had encountered Finns before – in Leningrad in 1985 – they were all amiable, jolly and staggeringly drunk. Something to do with the strict drink laws in Finland: at that time, Finns came across to Leningrad, sold denim jeans and Western goods to Russians and got very charmingly drunk on vodka.

My friend Lynn’s partner Frank had asked me to get him some schnapps at the airport duty free – stuff you can only get in Schiphol. It comes in an opaque brown bottle. I couldn’t see it, so I asked a man who was stacking the drinks shelves: “Do you have any schnapps?”

Inevitably, I was standing right by the schnapps: he pointed to two different brands, both in white bottles.

“I was asked to get some schnapps in a brown bottle,” I said: “Do you have any in a brown bottle?”

He looked at me as if I was mad, almost shrinking backwards, and replied:

“No, we do not have schnapps in a brown bottle.”

The EasyJet plane to Luton took off two hours late because:

a) the incoming plane broke down in Luton and
b) they had to fly a replacement plane into Amsterdam and
c) they said: “Air traffic over Western Europe has been disrupted by NATO”

I suppose squadrons of giant B-52 bombers taking off from Gloucestershire and flying to Serbia would do that.

SATURDAY 27th MARCH – BOREHAMWOOD

John Ward drives home in his Wardmobile

John Ward driving to his home in his self-made Wardmobile

My chum mad inventor John Ward has built a flying saucer. Today, with his son, he was collecting it from a garage in Weybridge then coming round to collect some stuff from me on his way home to Northamptonshire.

On the way to me, he was stopped by a Thames Valley police car with flashing lights and siren. Inside was a Sergeant Whittaker.

“What do you think you are doing?” asked Sergeant Whittaker.

He told John they had looked at their cameras and seen John and his son driving along the road in their car pulling an object brightly painted in fluorescent orange, red, yellow and blue.

“You are a distraction,” Sergeant Whittaker told John.

“Thankyou,” said John.

“Don’t be flippant,” Sergeant Whittaker warned him.

Sergeant Whittaker then appeared to flounder around trying to find something on which to arrest John.

“Have you got a licence for that?” Sergeant Whittaker asked, pointing at the flying saucer.

“It’s a trailer,” John replied.

“It has a seat in it,” observed Sergeant Whittaker.

“Ah,” said John, “But it has no engine in it: so it is legally a trailer.”

John Ward knows about these things.

At this point, an old man on a motorcycle passed by and was so amazed by the flying saucer and the police car with the flashing lights that he lost control of his motorcycle, hit the central barrier and fell off.

“Look!” Sergeant Whittaker told John. “He was distracted by your… your… thing!”

“No,” argued John. “It’s all your flashing red and blue and white lights distracted him.”

Sergeant Whittaker said accusingly: “Why didn’t you tell us you were coming? We could have arranged a police escort.”

“You’re joking,” said John.

“No I’m not…..Where are you going with it?”

“I’m dropping in at a friend’s in Borehamwood to collect some stuff, then taking it home.”

“Oh no you’re not. You’re a distraction. You’re taking it straight home.”

At this point, John phoned me on his mobile.

“Are you phoning the press?” the sergeant asked.

“Not yet,” said John.

“I know you from somewhere,” Sergeant Whittaker said. “Have I seen you on television?”

“No, I’m not him,” said John. “Reg, the bloke with the glasses in Coronation Street. People sometimes confuse me for him. But I’m not him.”

“No, you’re not him,” agreed Sergeant Whittaker, “but I think I’ve seen you somewhere.”

Eventually, Sergeant Whittaker got in John’s car and his policeman mate drove the police car. They set off in convoy, lights flashing and escorted John’s flying saucer to the border of the next police area – where a Buckinghamshire police car took over.

“Is that it?” the Buckinghamshire policeman asked when he saw the flying saucer. He had obviously been expecting something like a vast over-hanging mobile home on a pantechnicon.

When the Buckinghamshire police car reached the borders of Northamptonshire, there was a Northamptonshire police car waiting for them.

“Oh,” the Northamptonshire policeman said on seeing John, “It’s you.”

“Have we met?” John asked him.

“No,” said the Northamptonshire policeman.

When the other car had gone, the Northamptonshire policeman told John: “They’re mad down south. It’s a waste of time. They should be out catching criminals. I’m going back to the station.”

And off he went.

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Filed under Czech Republic, Eccentrics, Holland, Police, Yugoslavia

Hyphenate comedian Steve Best hopes to get laughs out of the Kosovo War

A selfie taken by Steve Best for the book

Steve Best – a comedy hyphenate with other strings to his bow

“You are a hyphenate,” I told comedian Steve Best in the Soho Theatre Bar.

“What?” he asked.

“In Hollywood,” I said some people are called hyphenates – writer-directors or actor-producer-directors. You are now a hyphenate. A writer-comedian-photographer podcaster.

In yesterdays’s blog, Martin Soan mentioned that Steve Best had performed with him and Boothby Graffoe in a freeform existentialist theatre piece in Germany.

On sale from this week

A second Comedy Snapshot book is in the pipeline…

Readers of this blog in March this year might remember Steve published Comedy Snapshot, his book comprising 440 photographs of UK comedians.

He is currently working on a second book of photographs and, he told me, is talking to a potential sponsor for the book tomorrow.

He is also involved in Abnormally Funny People, the highy-regarded group of comics with, as our American cousins might say, physical challenges. Abnormally Funny People have just launched a third podcast in their monthly series.

“Barclays Bank are sponsoring the podcast,” Steve told me, “but they’ve given us complete editorial control.”

“What’s in it for them?” I asked.

“To attract disabled customers,” replied Steve. “I think they’re trying to reach out and be accessible. They did that ad with (blind comic) Chris McCausland about talking ATM machines.” (It is currently on YouTube.)

“So Barclays approached you?” I asked.

“Well,” said Steve, “we always wanted to do a podcast, but we probably wouldn’t have done it without them. If you like the idea of something and someone gives you the money to do it, you do it.

“It’s something slightly different and we’d tried so many other avenues – TV scripts that nearly made it. We had Jimmy Mulville script editing at Hat Trick and it got to Channel 4, but that was the time BBC2 had Life’s Too Short and we didn’t get any further in the end.”

Life’s Too Short - maybe one worthy series a a time?

Life’s Too Short – Was it the big problem?

Life’s Too Short was TV’s token disabled show?” I asked.

“You kinda felt that it was,” said Steve, “but you can’t know for sure.”

“Yours was a sketch show?” I asked.

“No,” explained Steve. “It was Abnormally Funny People on tour as a sitcom. It wasn’t gratuitous disability; it just happened to be there and it was funny.”

“Why do Abnormally Funny People need a token non-disabled person like you?” I asked.

“Well,” said Steve, “Simon Minty and I knew each other from school. He has run consultancy firms and it was his original contact with someone who worked for Sky – Kay Allen – that financed our whole first Edinburgh Fringe run. They paid for the accommodation, venue, publicity, everything.

“Kay Allen now runs RUS – Really Useful Stuff – which is the company that provides us with the products we review in the new podcast.”

“Products such as?” I asked.

A self-stirring mug in action

An admirably self-stirring mug in action – I want one now!

“There’s a self-stirring mug,” said Steve. “If you have rheumatism or you can’t stir for some other reason, it stirs itself. Then there was the shoelace that was elasticated and worked like Velcro so, once you got the shoes on, you didn’t have to tie up the laces.

“Anything in the pipeline,” I asked, “other that the next photo book?”

“I’ve finished some fiction I want to get out,” Steve told me.

“A novel?”

“Yeah.”

“About comedy?”

“Sort of. It’s a love story, but to do with comedy and Yugoslavia – Kosovo – in 1999.”

The Kosovo War took place 1998-1999.

“Why that subject?” I asked.

“My wife is from Bosnia. She came over just before the Bosnian War (1992-1995) started. She is a lecturer in Linguistics at UCL, got a PhD in Linguistics. She studied at MIT with Chomsky.”

Steve has been married for 18 years.

“Your wife is a Kosovan or a Bosnian?” I asked.

“She would say she’s Serbian. She was born in Bosnia. Her mum was a Bosnian Croat and her dad’s Montenegran.”

“The Serbs were the baddies,” I said.

“They were put across as the baddies,” said Steve. “Sthe Bosnian War started in Croatia, when they chucked out the Serbs.”

“And the Croatians rather liked the wartime Nazis,” I said.

“I learned so much about it,” said Steve.

“Not many laughs in the subject,” I suggested.

Steve Best talked to me at Soho Theatre Bar

Steve Best aims to add another hyphen to his jobs – novelist

“It is a very funny book. Hopefully,” said Steve. “It is to do with an English comedian meeting a Yugoslav woman. So it’s semi-autobiographical.”

“Have you been out there?” I asked.

“Loads of times,” said Steve. “Been to Bosnia five times, Sarajevo, Mostar, all those places. But I’ve also worked out there with the forces – in CSE shows. I did a lot of research, but I’ve kept the politics very much away from the book. It is a funny book.”

Well, it is a funny world.

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Filed under Comedy, Disability, war, Writing, Yugoslavia