Tag Archives: Titograd

There were these four times I sort of remember with guns pointed at me

Sometimes a question comes out of thin air, no context, no cause.

Yesterday someone asked me: “Has anyone ever pointed a gun at you?”

I have no idea how that got into their mind.

And nor, I am told, do they.

I am a fairly placid person but the strange thing is, yes.

Four times.

But not this century.


Albanian soldier, 1979

The first time was in 1979 when I was wandering in a wood on a hillside just outside Titograd (now Podgorica) in what was then Yugoslavia (now Montenegro). Or it might have been just outside Durrës in Albania.

The strange thing is I now can’t remember which country it was in.

I was just wandering through the wood – somewhere – when I heard a sharp CRCK-CRCK. It was the sound of a rifle being cocked; the sound, as I understand it, of the bullet going into the chamber.

I looked up, startled, and there was a young soldier sitting up on the branch of a tree by the trunk. He was equally startled, looking down, pointing the barrel of the rifle at me.

We stared at each other for maybe half a second, maybe a full second, then I continued walking and he continued to look at me as I passed.

I think maybe he had been dozing, half asleep in the tree, and he woke up, startled, when he heard me below. I have no idea why he was up in a tree.

Understated posters in Bible-intimidated Leningrad in 1985

The next time was at the airport in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) in 1985. I had a beard at the time and someone surmised later that they thought I might be religious – the Orthodox Church and all that. The guy was just officious, I guess, trying to show he was enthusiastic in his duty of protecting the USSR against outside anti-Soviet Western pollution.

The officer had two obviously junior men in hats with him. They took their handguns out and vaguely waved them at me to shoo me into a back office. The Soviets never cared much about their PR image with tourists, but I never saw border guardy people waving guns around any other time. I think maybe they had watched too many American movies.

The officer got me to open my suitcase and, with pretty limited English, just kept asking me: “Books? Books? You have books?” All I could imagine afterwards was that he thought I was smuggling in Bibles to destroy Lenin’s Socialist Paradise.

Syrian checkpoint by a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Beirut, 1993

The next time was in 1993 when I was in Beirut and the Syrian Army was still present there with roadblocks and sandbagged gun positions at intersections.

Some (again young and officious) soldiers took exception to me taking photographs on the coast and, with their AK47s and no English language, shepherded me into a building where a rather laid-back Syrian Intelligence officer was brought in – it seemed rather unwillingly – to ask me questions. ‘Interrogate’ seems too excessive a word to use.

He seemed to be unconvinced I was a major threat to Syrian military rule, soon realised I was not an Israeli spy and started chatting about the time he had spent in the United States, the frequency of Israeli jets flying over Southern Lebanon and the perceived though unlikely threat of an Israeli seaborne attack on Beirut.

With polite apologies, he confiscated the two rolls of film in my two cameras and I was left trying to remember if there were shots of Hezbollah flags and the Airport Road on them and/or what else.

I was mildly worried because, on that trip to Beirut, I had tried to get into Syria to see Palmyra and had been refused entry – it seemed because my passport said I was a writer. I had previously got into Albania in 1979 and North Korea in 1986 with “writer” so I was not quite sure why the Syrians had taken so agin it.

He had a bit of an attitude …

The fourth time I had a gun pointed at me was in South London round 1998 or 1999.

He said it was a joke, but I think it was more that he had a bit of an attitude problem and an inferiority complex.

What have I learned?

Always be aware what is in the trees in Balkan woods and forests.

South London can potentially be as dangerous as Beirut… but not really.

And I still can’t remember which actual bloody country that bloke in the tree was in.

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Filed under Cold War, Violence

Someone appears to be trying to screw me out of money I am owed and that never seems to end well

When I was newly 18 – just a couple of months after my 18th birthday – I tried to kill myself over a girl. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I’ve never regretted it.

But, being a novice at such things, I used drugs – aspirin, paracetamol and codeine. This was a mistake. I had always been shit at Chemistry in school. I always came last in Chemistry, except on one occasion when I came next-to-last. The Chemistry master wrote on my report A fair try and emigrated to New Zealand.

The reason I mention this is that people have always tended to mis-read me. For one thing, they misread nihilism for jollity: a very strange misreading, even if it is occasionally humorous nihilism.

But people (as always) read other people’s thoughts and actions based on their own psychological make-up. This seems to mean that most people think I give a shit.

And they assume that I will calculate consequences in the same way that they would. This is not necessarily true. When I get into a tussle of tiffs. I do calculate consequences, but I may calculate them (from other people’s viewpoints) unexpectedly, in the sense that a scorched earth policy or the Cold War nuclear concept of MAD (mutual assured destruction) does not worry me. I do try to warn people about this, but they seem to ignore the warnings.

They are so used to reading between the lines that they don’t really pay attention to what is actually being said.

If you have, at a point earlier in your life, assumed that you would cease to exist in 60 or 30 or 10 minutes time and if that was an outcome you decided was acceptable – welcome, even – then, trust me, risk calculation later in life may not be on the same measurement scale that other people assume.

The comedian Janey Godley has said of performing comedy: “If I ever stood in a room with 600 people and talked for 15 minutes and nobody laughed, then it’s no worse than having a gun held at your head and I’ve already had that, so it doesn’t really scare me.”

She speaks from experience.

In different circumstances, so do I, though I have never had a gun held at my head. Though there was that unfortunate incident with the young Yugoslav soldier sitting up a tree in a forest outside Titograd.

The fact I genuinely care very little about consequences may also have something to do with having had a Scottish – and Scots Presbyterian – upbringing. The world is full of greys. It is not black and white. But, whereas others may not see a dividing line between the shades of grey I see from my personal viewpoint, I do.

Most decisions and most things in life don’t matter. But, if I decide something DOES matter, then I know where I have drawn that line. One side of that pencil thin line is what is acceptable. On the other side of that pencil thin line is something that is unacceptable under all circumstances.

Up to that line, I am told I am very malleable. If that line is crossed, though, then I will attempt to rip your throat out.

My rule of thumb is three strikes and you are out.

Fuck the consequences.

Just thought I’d mention it…

Now, anyone got any money-making propositions they want to run past me?

Perhaps a job as a risk assessment advisor?

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Filed under Comedy, Psychology