Tag Archives: president

Bouncing Czechs & Presidential pranks

(This was also published by Indian news site WSN)

Vladimir Franz - the face of Czech politics

Vladimir Franz – the tattooed face of Czech politics

I worked in Prague a few times, making promotions and press tapes for some start-up TV channels around 1995/1996.

It was only a few years after the Soviet empire crumbled and I thought Prague – and the Czech people – might be a bit grey and dour. It only took me about a week to re-appraise the situation, when I started to think of the country not as the Czech Republic but as Bohemia.

The Czechs are bohemians.

That is not 100% politically and geographically correct, but it is psychologically correct.

Certainly, when I was there, they liked their beer and they liked a party.

I should have realised this earlier because, before I actually worked in the Czech Republic, my sole experience of Czechs was bringing Ernő Rubik (inventor of Rubik’s cube) over to the UK for a couple of appearances on the anarchic children’s TV show Tiswas.

Erno was a very laid-back dude who liked jazz and wore corduroy trousers.

And THAT was under Soviet Communism.

I like the Czechs. They are generally sophisticated, cool and creative.

During my time there poet, playwright and former dissident Václav Havel was President. He had new uniforms for Prague Castle’s guards designed by the man who designed costumes for the movie Amadeus. He appointed glorious rock god Frank Zappa as ‘Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism‘ for the Czech Republic.

You have to like the Czechs.

But, like all relatively small countries (population 10.5 million) you have to accept the good (the capacity for eccentric decisions) with the bad (a possibility of corruption). In that sense, it is not unlike the Republic of Ireland.

Which brings me to the President of the Czech Republic.

In the UK, today’s Guardian newspaper carries a piece on Vladimir Franz, a tattooed-all-over opera composer, painter and professor at Prague’s Academy of Performing Arts. He is running for President and, in this week’s Presidental election race, he has an estimated 11% support and is running third. He has been compared (because of his tattooed face) to “an exotic creature from Papua New Guinea”, has no political experience and admits he doesn’t know much about economics.

So, obviously, I asked former Scots comic Alex Frackleton (now living in the Czech Republic) for some background on current Czech politics.

“In the outside world,” he told me, “it is the year 2013 – but, alas, not here where, despite digital television and high-speed internet, it feels like we’re living in the middle ages, circa 1320.

“On New Year’s Day, the out-going president of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus (known to me as ‘Cunty Baws’) announced a presidential pardon that would see the release of 7,000 prisoners from Czech jails and court proceedings. Among those released are a number of persons either convicted of or in the process of being prosecuted for multi-billion dollar frauds which took place during the privatization process of the 1990s. Purely coincidentally – and I hasten to add this is merely an observational point on my part – Václav Klaus was Prime Minister of the Czech Republic in the 1990s.

“I seem to be alone in assuming that this is merely a coincidence as every single person I know here is furious. Everyone is going mental. Even people who don’t normally care about politics are shouting their heads off.

“To date, 600 Mayors and 500 schools have taken down the President’s portrait in protest at the amnesty. The British equivalent would be removing a picture of the Queen, the Pope or Stephen Hawking …

“Cunty Baws is shouting about how the press/media/his enemies are blowing the whole thing out of proportion. This is the guy who, as a visiting President to a conference in Chile, was caught on camera stealing a pen.

“If he wanted to do something to mark his out-going-ness, he could easily have granted free heating to all pensioners during the three coldest months of the year.

“If ever there was a moment for another ’68 Prague Spring uprising or a real revolution to replace the velvet cushiness of ’89, then that moment ought to be now.”

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Who do we want as Queen of the UK? Elizabeth II or President William Haig?

…or we could have Tony Blair’s head

(A version of this blog was also published by the Indian news website WeSpeakNews)

I saw some Republican demonstrators interviewed on TV during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. One of their startling opening gambits to explain their position was: “The Parliament at Westminster has too much power.”

And they were arguing in favour of more politicians!

People often mis-read my political views. One example is that I am a very strong supporter of the monarchy.

Writing this blog I am on a hiding to nothing because, as long as it is, it does not give me enough space.

But, at school, I studied British Constitution for ‘A’ Level. The result is that I am a very strong supporter of the institution of a constitutional monarchy, but I have absolutely no interest at all in the soap opera of the Royal Family. I also think Tony Blair, as Prime Minister, was a neo-Fascistic prat who seriously damaged Britain’s constitutional set-up, but that is another matter.

When people say, “Oh, we should elect the Head of State,” I think, “Jesus! Are you out of your mind? Do you realise you are arguing that what we need is more scumbag politicians?”

Britain has stumbled into a State where we have a Head of State with lots of theoretical power and no practical power.

Bloody great!

The Queen does not actually make the important appointments, does not make laws, cannot in practice prevent laws from being passed by Parliament and has no actual practical constitutional power. But she is the ultimate safeguard against dictatorship and tyranny.

If a mad Prime Minister and/or a truly extremist government got into power and started passing laws which the vast majority of people then found repulsive – the example always used at school was a law that all red-headed men should be executed – what would happen? They could not be voted out by the electorate until the next General Election: perhaps four years away.

The only certain way to actually overthrow a government effectively anywhere (beyond the uncertainties of civil war) is for the government’s Army to overthrow it and you then have a situation where the Army is the government and has to appoint one of its own as Head of State.

In Britain, the Army is not the government’s Army; it is, in theory, the monarch’s Army. As is the Air Force, the Navy, the Police and the Civil Service.

The Prime Minister is not the Head of State. He/she is not even the head of the government. In theory. the Prime Minister is just that – primus inter pares – first among equals – only one of the monarch’s many ministers.

The result of this is that, if the Army overthrew an out-of-control government, it would do so in the name of the on-going monarchy and would not have to name one of its own officers as temporary Head of State. That sounds an unimportant distinction. But it would be re-asserting the monarch’s supremacy from a Prime Minister who had temporarily taken control, not overthrowing its own head. That makes it much easier to re-establish a new civilian government.

And this is not necessarily a theoretical point.

It would be interesting to have seen what would have happened if the rumoured plan for a military coup in the UK in 1975 had actually happened. But, returning to the subject…

The myth about the monarchy is that it is somehow costly.

Compared to what?

Compared to a President?

Bollocks.

The Queen receives no actual salary; the monarch’s costs are paid. Does anyone believe the same or higher expenses would be not incurred by a President? Plus some inflated annual salary and pension. All those flash state meals, all those flash ceremonials. They would still happen. Their costs would still happen. And, if there were no Diamond Jubilee, there would (quite reasonably) be some other State mega shindigs to bolster the patriotic spirit (but with less glitz and glamour because a politician in a suit would be at the centre of it).

Then there is the extended Royal Family – for which the taxpayer does not pay salaries. In effect, we get the Queen and a collection of subsidiary clones who trundle round the country as representatives. The London TV news last night carried pictures of Princess Alexandra (currently 40th in line to the throne and she’s free) at some street party.

So what’s the alternative?

Another morally-compromised politician.

By definition, anyone running to get public votes to be a temporary President will be a politician.

Un-enthusiastic voters would shamble out to decide whether they prefer to have President Tony Blair or President William Haig or President Edwina Currie for 4 years, at the end of which time some other lacklustre or tired or up-his-own-arse former, failed or self-important politician would get to extend their money-making life for a few more years.

And then you have the continuity which you do not get from an elected Head of State. The Queen has 60 years knowledge of the innermost workings of Britain. This is not insignificant.

She knows not what people think happened but what actually happened behind-the-scenes in the UK for the whole of the last 60 years – and why. She read the same red boxes her Prime Ministers did for the last 60 years. She – and, indeed, Prince Charles – know more about the inner workings of Britain than any temporary Prime Minister does. More than members of the Cabinet, more than MPs, more than current top civil servants. The top civil servants may have been civil servants for years, but they only hold the top posts – with real knowledge of what is happening – for a few years.

What you get from a continuing monarchy above and beyond the political system is continuity.

Who wants another politician in another now political role for another four years and what is he/she going to do anyway? Fight with Parliament? Counter-balance or emasculate the Prime Minister? Or do nothing and just go to meals with people wearing a suit and with a background of political back-stabbing over several years?

What improvement on the current system would an elected Head of State make?

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

When the very young 18-year-old Queen Victoria ascended the throne, she was mentored by Lord Melbourne. When the 26-year-old Queen Elizabeth II unexpectedly ascended the throne on the death of her father who had, himself, unexpectedly become King, Winston Churchill mentored her with knowledge going back beyond the First World War. But those politicians soon faded away. Their knowledge, though, continued through the monarch and continued to be built-on.

At the end of the movie Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer’s character, at the point of death, says:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

The same thing happens when politicians and civil servants leave office. They leave the papers behind. But, when another similar emergency situation suddenly arises without warning, who knows where to really find out how it was handled before?

As I said, I saw some Republican demonstrators interviewed during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. One of their startling opening gambits to explain their position was: “The Parliament at Westminster has too much power.”

I am not sure I agree with that, but it is certainly no argument for replacing the monarchy.

Do we really want ANOTHER up-his-or-her-own-arse elected politician?

Do we really want President Tony Blair or President William Haig or President Simon Cowell?

No, we want a theoretical Head of State separated from the sleaze of the Westminster sewer.

We want what we have: a Head of State with no practical powers and major theoretical powers which are a safeguard against political tyranny and a family which has (whether wanker Republicans like it or not) widespread public respect and continuity of knowledge.

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Ireland: land of comedy, corruption and persuasive terrorism

(This was also published by the Huffington Post)

I am back in the UK after a week in Kerry in south west Ireland.

My friend acquired five small pieces of flat grey slate to use as coffee cup coasters. They were confiscated at Kerry Airport on the way back home lest we fashion them on the plane as Stone Age axe heads and attack the cabin crew.

This is partly understandable and a good use of lateral thinking, though a tad fantastically paranoid and I did wonder if some of the massive amounts of cocaine smuggled in through Kerry had trickled down to the security lady who was evidently so proud to wear her overly-neat uniform.

Yes. Mieow. Indeed.

Still, we could indeed have turned out to be the Coffee Cup Coaster Terrorists.

There was no negotiating possible with the security lady which was odd, as chatting things over to sort out problems tends to be a national pastime and to work wonders.

I was told that, a few years ago, in the Iveragh Peninsula, where we stayed, there had been an attempt by the IRA to wield more local influence in Kray Twins like ways – a bit of protection money here, a bit of a percentage there. But this was nipped fairly quickly in the bud by “some people” having a chat with the RA lads and making it clear this was not acceptable.  Quite who “some people” were was unclear but, clearly, they had well-honed and persuasive negotiating skills.

Likewise the late lamented roguish Irish politician Charlie Haughey who was Taoiseach three times. I was told that once, when he was not Taoiseach, he needed a bit of money and his luxury yacht sank in suspicious circumstances.

The circumstances were so suspicious that the insurance company refused to pay out – until Charlie had a little chat with them and pointed out that this was Ireland and, if they gave him any trouble, they themselves might encounter similarly annoying obstacles to their interests when he became Taoiseach again.

They paid out.

It’s good to talk.

As I mentioned in a blog before, Charlie was that very Irish thing: a lovable rogue and his passing must have been much lamented by the tabloid press and by stand-up comedians and pub humorists across the country.

During his reign as leader, Charlie’s Fianna Fail party was known as “the party of the brown envelope”.

Of course, wagging tongues do not necessarily tell or even imply the truth and innocent people can be sullied. Charlie’s successor as Fianna Fail leader and as Taoiseach was Bertie Ahern, a much-respected Taoiseach untouched by scandal – he was known as the ‘Teflon Taoiseach’.

He came to power in the same year as Tony Blair and the two of them succeeded where many others had failed – getting a peace deal in Northern Ireland.

It’s good to talk.

Historic and highly admirable stuff but, oddly, Bertie had been an accountant before entering politics and then Minister for Finance before becoming Taoiseach.

I say “oddly” because, it later turned out, he had no bank account until December 1993. (He was Minister for Finance 1991-1994 and became Taoiseach in 1997 when he was aged 45.)

There’s no law which says you have to have a bank account but, given such facts, stand-up comedians and unfounded speculation can run amuck.

Later, in court, Bertie’s former girlfriend testified that he once drove her to a bank in Dublin’s O’Connell Street so she could withdraw £50,000 sterling in cash for him. A businessman involved with Bertie told of emptying a briefcase containing £28,000 onto a desk and Bertie put the cash into a safe, without counting it. And, indeed, without giving a receipt.

Comedy gold.

Recently, when both former Provisional IRA leader Martin McGuinness and former Eurovision Song Contest winner Dana ran for the post of President of the Irish Republic, McGuinness came third and Dana sixth out of the seven contenders.

This was said to be because fewer people could remember Dana’s hits.

Ireland. Land of comedy, corruption and persuasive terrorism.

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The conspiracy movie financed by drug money and destroyed by its distributors

There can’t be many 1970s movies which had Elizabeth Taylor in the cast yet which did not bill her in the credits. But, then, Winter Kills has a production history so quirky and so labyrinthine that it is worthy of a movie about its own production.

I saw it once about 25 years ago and – believe me – see it once and you don’t forget it.

I saw it again last night at the National Film Theatre in London.

Winter Kills is a baroque fictionalised fantasy about the conspiracy to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. It is so quirky that it can be described (although this is slightly misleading) as a black comedy.

It is based on a book by Richard Condon, author of The Manchurian Candidate – a book also about a political assassination but published before Kennedy’s death.

With an iconic cast and crew to die for, Winter Kills was produced by two wealthy drug dealers – Robert Sterling and Leonard Goldberg – who had made their names and a lot of money by releasing the Emmanuelle soft core porn movies in the US.

But they did not actually have the $6.5 million budget needed to make Winter Kills themselves.

Leonard Goldberg believed that, if you borrowed a large enough amount of money, the debtors would have to let you finish the movie to ensure getting their money back. The problem was that the film went at least $4 million over budget and, at one point, the production manager had a sawn-off shotgun shoved under his chin until he paid for a generator.

Eventually, in mid-production, Goldberg was murdered by the Mafia – his brains shot out, handcuffed to his bed – for failing to pay his debts – and, later, Robert Sterling was sentenced to 40 years in prison for marijuana smuggling. The production went so far over budget that it was shut down three times – twice by the unions – and it declared bankruptcy.

First-time director William Richert and several of the cast and crew eventually went to Germany and filmed a comedy called The American Success CompanyThey sold distribution rights on that movie, which made them enough money to finish shooting Winter Kills after a two-year hiatus.

Although “quirky and idiosyncratic” is an understatement for the Byzantine plot, the movie got good – occasionally rave – reviews when it was released.

The New York Times called it “a funny, paranoid fable… furiously funny”.

Rolling Stone labelled it “Boisterous Burlesque”.

Newsweek’s rave review said it was: “flamoyantly absurd, extravagantly confusing, grandiosely paranoid and more than a little fun”.

The New Yorker critic was so bemused that be went to see the movie a second time and then said – admiringly – that it  “was like listening to some marvelous, entertaining drunken storyteller”.

But it made little money because it was pulled quickly from cinemas after distributors Avco Embassy Pictures told director William Richert: “It’s not really in the best interests of Americans to watch a picture like this.”

Richard Condon, author of the original bestselling book, wrote an article in Harper’s magazine titled Who Killed Winter Kills? in which he pointed out that the Avco Embassy conglomerate had major defence contracts in which the Kennedy family were involved and that assassinated President John Kennedy’s brother Edward was thought likely to run for President in the near future.

Avco Embassy certainly chopped some scenes out (including Elizabeth Taylor’s two scenes) which William Richert re-inserted when he eventually bought his film back and re-released it on DVD.

Winter Kills is a bizarrely-plotted semi-fantasy film with strangely-scripted lines perfectly delivered by A-list actors.

Anthony Perkins has some of the most interesting, including:

“People tend to accept the plausible if it is wondrously documented… We pioneered these methods in modern society until, today, as we see, our politicians and political structure could not survive without them. Life and truths have been turned into diverting, gripping, convincing scenarios.”

Winter Kills is a maze of fanciful plots and bizarre scenes. As Anthony Perkins’ character says: “the techniques of fiction playing like searchlights upon a fancied facade of truth.”

It gives some of Michael Powell’s weirder films a run for their money.

You can see a trailer here and a 37-minute feature on the making of Winter Kills here.

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Why Roman Polanski’s glamorous rape-excusing friends should be ashamed

I once had to make a television trailer for a documentary on the Waffen-SS. It was very difficult to cut together any pictures that did not make the SS look glamorous because most of the footage was actually shot by the Nazi regime itself, therefore it had a Triumph of the Will style about it. Wonderful angled shots of smart, black-uniformed men marching down steps in formation. The Nazis tended not to film the Waffen-SS butchering men, women and children. Bad for the image.

Let’s be honest, Hitler’s Third Reich made good films and had a great sense of visual style in the design of their uniforms, their architecture and the staging of big-scale live events. But that doesn’t mean that The Holocaust was a minor matter and that Adolf Hitler “should be forgiven this one sin”.

I always find that, if you take an opinion or an event – especially on moral questions – and re-position it into an extreme situation, then that clarifies the opinion or event. My extreme situation is Nazi Germany.

If an argument works put into the context of Nazi Germany, then it probably works in general. Which brings us to Roman Polanski.

His glamorous showbiz chums sit around saying that he should be ‘let off’ the sex abuse charges on which he was found guilty in the US – and on which he jumped bail – in 1977. They say that he should be forgiven his trespasses because (a) he is famous, (b) he is or was a good film director, (c) he had a bad time in the War and (d) it all happened a good few years ago.

I admire Polanski’s earlier films.

But he drugged, raped and buggered a 13 year old girl. This is no small matter and the facts are not in dispute.

If Hitler were found living in Surbiton, the fact the Holocaust was a long time ago and he had had a difficult childhood would not quite merit ignoring what was done and letting him off with a slap on the head and “Don’t do it again, you naughty boy,” said in a disapproving tone.

I recently mentioned in passing on my Facebook page that when IMF boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn, charged with attempted rape, was initially refused bail, one reason the judge gave for not giving him bail was the fact that Roman Polanski had done a runner on a rape charge.

Someone pointed out to me that the girl victim in the Polanski case “has been trying to drop charges for the last ten years… She has said that all of the publicity for this incident has hurt her more than the actual crime itself… She’s suffered enough; let it drop.”

Well, if Hitler were found living in Surbiton, the fact that the Holocaust was a long time ago and the people who suffered would be upset by a trial would not affect what crimes had been intentionally committed.

Raping a 13 year old is not right. Buggering a 13 year old is not right. And, equally, jumping bail to avoid a jail sentence for drugging, raping and buggering a 13 year old girl is not something to be ignored just because you used to be a good movie director and it happened a while ago.

The fact Polanski’s original trial judge in 1977 was running for public office, desperate for self-publicity and sounds like he changed his mind on giving Polanski a custodial sentence does not enter into it. I imagine some of the judges at the Nuremberg Trials were scumbags; it does not mean that Nazis found living in freedom 30 years later should not be tried.

My bottom line is that, if you drug, rape and bugger a 13 year old girl and then flee abroad to escape a custodial sentence, you deserve to be imprisoned for a considerable time. The fact glamorous showbiz names champion Roman Polanski and, in effect, say he should be pardoned for artistic merit nauseates me. Hitler was a painter and commissioned good movies. I don’t think his artistic merit or the artistic merit of Leni_Riefenstahl enters into it.

You can read the 37 page transcript of the Grand Jury proceedings against Roman Polanski in 1977 HERE.

According to the girl’s testimony, after giving her champagne and a Quaalude, Polanski sat down beside her and kissed her, despite demands that he “keep away.” He eventually, she said, “started to have intercourse with me.” Later, he asked the 13 year old: “Would you want me to go in through your back?” before he “put his penis in my butt.”

Asked why she did not more forcefully resist 43 year old Polanski, the teenager, who was 13 at the time of the rape, said: “Because I was afraid of him.”

The girl sued Polanski in 1988, alleging sexual assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress and seduction. In 1993 Polanski agreed to settle with her and according to the Los Angeles Times he agreed to give her half a million dollars. Reportedly, she was still trying to get part of this money from him in 1996 but she and her lawyers later confirmed the financial settlement was completed.

The girl publicly forgave Polanski in 1997, twenty years after the rape and buggery.

In 2009, Lech Walesa, former President of Poland, argued that Polanski “should be forgiven this one sin.”

I say fuck him.

Details of what was in Polanski’s 111 page Polish Secret Service file are HERE.

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The fickle finger of fate, fame and mortality, featuring comedy, cancer, Libyans and a nuclear explosion

Yesterday I had tea in London with David Kirk Traylor. widely known for his character Mr Zed

Born in the US, he has lived in Rome for many years. He has starred in eight television series, seen in 35 countries worldwide. He has done command performances for the Pope and the President of the United States and had a top 40 hit record in Europe. He has dubbed and voiced literally hundreds of films, cartoons, CD ROMs and computer & arcade games including an Indiana Jones game for Lucas Arts. His success became such an international phenomenon that he was the subject of a special report on CNN. I booked him on Jack Dee’s Saturday Night on peaktime ITV in 1996, yet he remains ‘unknown’ in the UK.

So it goes.

He told me two of his friends died of cancer around 25 years ago. Their cancer was caused by the radiation cloud from the 1986 nuclear explosion at Chernobyl. The radiation cloud was blown over Rome and they died about a year later. The Italian government lied about the cloud and no-one knew the danger. Several hundred people are thought to have died.

So it goes.

I remember reading about a man who was mending his bicycle in his living room just before Christmas 1988. He lived in a small, quiet Scottish town I knew slightly when I was growing up because, when I was a child, my parents had friends who lived there. The man who was mending his bike died in his living room and neither he nor his house were seen again. Nor the bicycle. They disintegrated. Nothing was left of them. A jumbo jet fell on them. They lived in Lockerbie.

So it goes.

The then-apartheid South African foreign minister Pik Botha was supposed to be on the jumbo jet, but got an earlier flight.

The Four Tops singing group had been due to fly on the jumbo jet, but had been late getting out of a recording session and overslept.

Johnny Rotten, formerly of the Sex Pistols, had been due to fly on the jumbo jet, but missed the flight.

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, convicted in 2001 of bombing the jumbo jet in 1988, was released from his Scots prison in 2009 because he had terminal cancer and had about three months to live. He returned to Libya to die. He is still alive now, in 2011.

BBC TV News has just reported that Human Rights Watch claim, in the last week in Libya, at least 233 people have died in the ongoing demonstrations.

So it goes.

A friend of mine, whom I have known for 36 years, now has cancer.

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Dangerous holidays in quirky places

The most dangerous place I was ever on holiday was Bogota in Colombia in 1983, at a time when the Medellin and Cali drug cartels were on the rise. At that time, the presumption in Bogota was that any white Westerner speaking English was carrying large amounts of cash to use in major drug deals.

About an hour after arriving in the city, I was crossing a central road junction when I heard a slight scuffle behind me. My companion, walking about four steps behind had been mugged by two men.

“They held two knives at my throat, so I gave them my wallet,” he told me, slightly surprised. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” It must have taken all of four seconds.

I remember, one Sunday morning, the two of us walking down a main street in the city – walking on the actual road, not the pavement, because it seemed safer to risk being hit by a car than walking close to narrow alleyways and shop doorways. It was less paranoia than common sense. A week or so later, in Lima, Peru, I got chatting to a young American in the bar of the Sheraton hotel.

“Yeah, Bogota is dangerous,” he agreed. He told me he visited the city quite often.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“I’m in the import/export business,” he told me.

“Ah,” I replied.

I like interesting places but not dangerous ones.

Yesterday I went to the Destinations holiday exhibition at Earls Court in London, courtesy of the wonderful travel company Regent Holidays. In 1979, I went with them to Albania, largely because I had read the country had no motorised traffic and was dotted with pillbox bunkers in case they got invaded by unspecified other nations. “Dotted with pillboxes” turned out to be an understatement. Albania had concrete pillboxes like a pointillist painting has dots – and they were white curved things which could be clearly seen from a distance (surely not a good idea for a pill-box).

Albania in 1979 was a restful country – said to be the poorest in Europe – and, indeed, it had virtually no motorised vehicles. Occasionally you might spot a military truck or a Mercedes-Benz limo belonging to the Party; other than that it was horse-drawn carts and people walking. It was ruled by the admirably OTT Marxist-Leninist dictator Enver Hoxha who was said to always carry a pistol on his hip and once shot a member of his government over a dinner argument.

Now that’s my kinda ruler!

You can imagine Boris Johnson, given a tiny bit more power, doing that sort of thing.

Albania in 1979 was the most eccentric place I had been until I wisely went to North Korea with Regent Holidays in 1985. I recommend the country highly. When I went, it was ruled by The Great Leader (that was his official title) Kim il-sung about whom I’m saying nothing as I might want to go back there sometime. All I will say is that I went in 1985 and 1985 was a year late for North Korea’s definitive year. It was illegal for individuals to own a radio: the simplest effective piece of state control over people’s thoughts I have ever heard of.

Regent Holidays specialised then and specialise now in unusual destinations and, during the Cold War, that often meant extreme Communist regimes. I do lament the passing of widespread hardline Communism because you were always safe travelling to communist countries and right wing dictatorships. If anyone messed with foreign-currency-carrying tourists in those countries, the perpetrators tended to end up being thrown in a cell and the key thrown away or being shot in a football stadium. This tended to minimise casual street muggings.

I went to a lot of Communist countries during the Cold War because I was sadly too late for all the truly great right wing dictatorships. The only right wing dictatorship I did visit was Paraguay under General Stroessner. He is reported to have been ousted in 1989 because his military chiefs feared he would be succeeded either by his son Freddie, a cocaine addict, or by his son Gustavo, “who was loathed for being a homosexual and a pilot”. Bigotry apparently ran deep in Paraguay.

People have always told me I should go to Cuba and maybe I should, but I never felt it was extreme or eccentric enough. Fidel Castro always seemed to me a decent sort-of chap though, like comedian Ken Dodd, he tended to drastically over-run on his allotted stage time. He (I mean Fidel, not Doddy) ousted a particularly nasty dictator in Batista; this understandably annoyed the American Mafia, in particular Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky – and it is never a good idea to annoy powerful chaps like them. The modern-day equivalent might be a pub singer annoying Simon Cowell.

Having gained power, Fidel did approach US American President Eisenhower for aid and a meeting and was rebuffed. So it always seemed to me that Fidel was a decent bloke and the Americans brought on their own heads what followed. I mean, honestly, chaps in Langley getting CIA operatives to try to kill Fidel with an exploding cigar or to discredit him by trying to make his hair fall out… well, it’s the basis for a good comedy movie and I admire the lateral thinking, but leave the poor man alone.

I prefer holidays in quirky countries with eccentric dictators and there are precious few at the moment.

I did go to Turkmenistan in 1995 because President Saparmurat Niyazov sounded doolally. Sadly, he wasn’t, at that time, eccentric enough for my taste, though he did go slightly more impressively barking a little later: re-naming months of the year after members of his family and officially replacing the Turkmen word for “bread” with the name of his mother.

I like countries in a state of flux which will have changed utterly in 20 years time. Where is there to go now? Chechnya? Ingushetia? I’m not that mad. Somalia? You’re joking.

At Earls Court yesterday, the most interesting stand by far was Hinterland Travel, who were selling holidays to Afghanistan – their brochure was sub-titled “Discerning Adventures” which I don’t think anyone could dispute.

Around 1989, a friend suggested we go on holiday to Afghanistan because, she claimed,  “it’ll be safer in a couple of years or so”. It never did get safer. At the time she suggested it, I read that commercial jets were landing at Kabul Airport by making very tight spiral descents in an attempt to confuse any in-coming heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles. There comes a point where “interesting” strays into “fucking dangerous” and, call me a wimp, but this was well over that line.

On 15th October this year, Hinterland Travel are offering a 14-day trip starting in Afghanistan costing £2,100. This adventure holiday for discerning travellers who are attracted to something slightly different from a Spanish beach holiday is called “The Retreat”. It starts in Kabul and aims to recreate the retreat of the British Army from Kabul to Jalalabad in 1842.

A note at the back of the leaflet says: “We do insist that you take out some form of insurance… principally health and repatriation cover while recognising that you will not be covered for Afghanistan re War and Terrorism.”

Suddenly Bogota in 1983 doesn’t seem so dangerous.

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