Csíkszereda Musings

My life in and around Csíkszereda, also known as Miercurea Ciuc.

Archive for the ‘history’ Category

A bit of China that is forever Austro-Hungarian

Posted by Andy Hockley on 8 March, 2008

This morning (well, it was before lunch, but probably not technically morning), we went to an exhibition at the castle here in town of stereographic photos from the late 19th early 20th century (you know those 3d pictures that you have to look at through glasses one lens of which is red and one green). Anyway, some of the pictures were pretty fun, and in some cases the depth from the 3d effect worked really well (one of the Alhambra in Granada and one of the Danube in Budapest stood out – hoho). There were a couple from Transylvania – one or two in Brasov and a few in Cluj, but the others were from all over the place. Anyway, one really caught my eye, not because it was a particularly great shot, but because it purported to show the “Austro Hungarian Colony at Tien Shin, China”. “Hold on”, I thought to myself, and subsequently said to Erika, “there was an Austro Hungarian colony in China?”

On my return home I spent some time looking this up. This was tricky because the way the name of the Chinese town had been rendered was unhelpful, and because there is no wikipedia article on this colony (imagine! something that doesn’t have a wikipedia entry). Some concentrated searching however, led me to conclude that the town’s name is more often rendered as Tianjin, and that there was, in fact, a small bit (less than 1km²) of that city which was (for 16 short years) ruled from Vienna. Weird huh? This was all part of the fallout from supression of the Boxer Rebellion, apparently, in which 8 powers helped out, and all ended up with a bit of Tianjin to call their own. You can read about it here.

I’m now intrigued to imagine this city with it’s small corner of Habsburgian architecture which that article assures me is there.

Anyway, just thought I’d share.

Posted in history | 1 Comment »

Reunion

Posted by Andy Hockley on 2 July, 2007

No, not the French island off East Africa.

I have never been to a school reunion. Not of my secondary school, not of my (excuse British-ism) VIth form college, not of my University. I have never even been invited to one, and have no idea if such things have ever been held. I have to assume not, since I can’t be that hard to track down – while I have moved a lot and all over the shop, my folks have lived in the same place since I was 7, and I really honestly wasn’t so unpopular that I would have been deliberately “forgotten” when invitations were being sent.

Here, however, these reunions are not only held, but have quite a specific format. I know this because on Friday we went to Erika’s back in Marosvasarhely (Targu Mures). The whole thing kicks off with an “Oszi ora” (spelling very possibly wrong) in which the class reconvenes in their old classroom with their old teacher and says something about what they’ve been up to/cracks a joke etc. That is in the afternoon, and then in the evening there is the party to which the spouses, partners, etc get invited.

What’s especially interesting about this particular class is that the vast majority of them have emigrated. Erika is one of the few of her classmates who still lives in Romania, while the others are in Hungary, Luxembourg, Germany, Canada, the US, Switzerland, etc. This, I think, very much reflects the time at which they graduated high school and the circumstances in which they found themselves. Marosvasarhely/Targu Mures was (for Hungarians) particularly hard hit by the Ceausescu years. This is obviously not to say that everyone wasn’t hard hit by Ceausescu (well nearly everyone, people like Iliescu obviously did alright). Then in 1990, post Ceausescu, the city was the location for Romania’s only serious inter-ethnic conflict between Hungarians and Romanians (Human Rights Watch report), and I think for many people at that time, especially Hungarian young adults, it may have been seen as a time to get out while it was momentarily possible. Obviously things didn’t turn out for the worst, and the riots and attacks were an isolated incident and while the ethnic balance has shifted in the city (it is now majority Romanian), people’s worst fears were not realised. But they have resulted in the emigration of a large section of the Hungarian population who were old enough to remember the 80s, young enough to not have built up a vast set of ties and responsibilities within the town, but adult enough to have been free to leave in the early 90s. (I susepct I have rather ungallantly given Erika’s age away here, or at least led the reader to guess exactly which high school reunion we were celebrating)

Anyway, the party was very good, aside from the food which was bloody rubbish (a universally held opinion, not just mine). I’m even getting used to being at parties at which all the music is entirely unfamiliar to me. As ever it went on until the hours were no longer so wee (I’m still taken aback about how long parties go on here), and there were even people present who spoke less Hungarian than me. There was a football match the following day between the class boys and the husbands of the class girls. I didn’t play, because (a) we had to get back to Paula, (b) I didn’t know about it, and so had no suitable shoes, and (c) I’d only got to bed after 5 and had consumed a fair amount of booze and I am no longer capable of indulging in that kind of madness (and to be honest I’m not sure how any of the others were – I mean the nature of the event means that there isn’t that great an age range between potential participants).

Posted in history, traditions | Leave a Comment »

East and West Pakistan

Posted by Andy Hockley on 26 April, 2007

Taking off from Dhaka and subsequently landing in Karachi is a study in contrasts – you rise above this incredibly wet and green world, crisscrossed with rivers, lush and verdant, and then 3 hours later you begin descending across this brown arid wasteland, crisscrossed with dry wadis and the occasional rock strewn escarpment. The two places couldn’t be more different.

The other thing one notices about the flight is how long it is. It takes something like four hours to go from Bangladesh to Pakistan. And this is in a modern 21st century aeroplane. God knows what it would have taken in 1947. It’s during this long flight that I began to realise what a doomed and faintly ridiculous idea it was to create this one country with so much (sporadically hostile) territory between its seperate bits. Who thought it might be a good idea? It’s amazing that it actually lasted for 24 years before imploding. For anyone wishing to read about the mess that was East and West Pakistan, and the resultant civil war/war of independence/brutal response to Bangladeshi uprsising, this Wikipedia article is worth a read. I had read before about the atrocities and the brutality that Bengalis suffered in that war of liberation (mostly in John Pilger’s “Heroes”), but I had forgotten just how brutal and atrocious it really was.

On other historical matters, while I was in Karachi, I had a long and involved conversation with a (semi-famous?) writer on the subject of the founding of Pakistan and the role and philosophy of Muhammed Iqbal. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of Iqbal before, though he was obviously crucial in the creation of the “idea” of Pakistan, and is still seen as the grandfather of the nation (with Jinnah as its father). I opined that founding a state on religious grounds (or ethno-religious grounds) was something I couldn’t quite get my head around. The only two such states that I know of are Pakistan and Israel, and while I understand the rationale behind the formation of both, the “dream” on which they were founded seems to have run aground in both cases. My interlocutor said that he saw Pakistan as being founded upon an idea, rather like the US was, which I am not terribly sure I buy, but I suspect that’s because he was coming from the literary perspective of the study of Iqbal. We were agreed, however, that whatever the ideal of Pakistan was, the reality was nowhere close.

Pakistan in general is more and more seen as the centre of the world – at least in a Huntington-esque clash of civilisations world. Military dictatorship vs Islamic fundamentalism vs secular / islamic-with-a-small-i democracy. The British government have realised this, it seems, and are devoting lots of resources to education there. Maybe they’ve got the message that education is more likely to win hearts and minds than bombing the fuck out of people, and then torturing those who are left alive. (Surprisingly the latter approach seems not to be terribly effective).

Posted in history, travel | 1 Comment »

East and West Pakistan

Posted by Andy Hockley on 26 April, 2007

Taking off from Dhaka and subsequently landing in Karachi is a study in contrasts – you rise above this incredibly wet and green world, crisscrossed with rivers, lush and verdant, and then 3 hours later you begin descending across this brown arid wasteland, crisscrossed with dry wadis and the occasional rock strewn escarpment. The two places couldn’t be more different.

The other thing one notices about the flight is how long it is. It takes something like four hours to go from Bangladesh to Pakistan. And this is in a modern 21st century aeroplane. God knows what it would have taken in 1947. It’s during this long flight that I began to realise what a doomed and faintly ridiculous idea it was to create this one country with so much (sporadically hostile) territory between its seperate bits. Who thought it might be a good idea? It’s amazing that it actually lasted for 24 years before imploding. For anyone wishing to read about the mess that was East and West Pakistan, and the resultant civil war/war of independence/brutal response to Bangladeshi uprsising, this Wikipedia article is worth a read. I had read before about the atrocities and the brutality that Bengalis suffered in that war of liberation (mostly in John Pilger’s “Heroes”), but I had forgotten just how brutal and atrocious it really was.

On other historical matters, while I was in Karachi, I had a long and involved conversation with a (semi-famous?) writer on the subject of the founding of Pakistan and the role and philosophy of Muhammed Iqbal. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of Iqbal before, though he was obviously crucial in the creation of the “idea” of Pakistan, and is still seen as the grandfather of the nation (with Jinnah as its father). I opined that founding a state on religious grounds (or ethno-religious grounds) was something I couldn’t quite get my head around. The only two such states that I know of are Pakistan and Israel, and while I understand the rationale behind the formation of both, the “dream” on which they were founded seems to have run aground in both cases. My interlocutor said that he saw Pakistan as being founded upon an idea, rather like the US was, which I am not terribly sure I buy, but I suspect that’s because he was coming from the literary perspective of the study of Iqbal. We were agreed, however, that whatever the ideal of Pakistan was, the reality was nowhere close.

Pakistan in general is more and more seen as the centre of the world – at least in a Huntington-esque clash of civilisations world. Military dictatorship vs Islamic fundamentalism vs secular / islamic-with-a-small-i democracy. The British government have realised this, it seems, and are devoting lots of resources to education there. Maybe they’ve got the message that education is more likely to win hearts and minds than bombing the fuck out of people, and then torturing those who are left alive. (Surprisingly the latter approach seems not to be terribly effective).

Posted in history, travel | 1 Comment »

October 23rd

Posted by Andy Hockley on 25 October, 2006

Bit of a busy week, round these parts as I am in sole charge of the little ones, but we’ll see if I can get through a quick post about Monday evening before the littlest one wakes up.

So, as mentioned earlier Monday was the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising in which a large number of very brave people rose up against their oppressive regime, and were eventually crushed with the assistance of the Soviet army. This obviously didn’t happen here, since we are not in Hungary, but there was a fairly large commemmoration event here. At 6.30 we went out to join the candelit march that was starting from “Freedom Square” outside our apartment. We couldn’t get a candle/torch, as they were reserved for bigwigs apparently, but undaunted we managed to get over the disappointment. The parade/march/walk/amble was conducted in almost complete silence (though I’m not sure if that was deliberate or just because people weren’t feeling very chatty), and led us up Timisoara Boulevard and then up past the theatre to the Hungarian Consulate. By the time we got there it was a fairly big gathering, of at least a couple of thousand, which for this town is a major turnout.

Speeches were spoken by various dignitaries – somebody from the Hungarian foreign ministry, the consul, some religious leader, a local politician one who has his own blog even (in Hungarian), and various others. It was getting a bit parky by this time, and Paula was getting tired so I led her home, while Erika and Bogi braved the nighttime chill of the Carpathians for a while longer, but not quite long enough to witness the unveiling of a new statue representing “The Angel of News” (I think). I saw it yesterday though, and it’s not the most attractive piece of public art I’ve ever seen, but probably I’ll get used to it.

I wanted to include some photos to give you a taste of the evening’s events, but sadly my camera chose that night to seemingly expire. I’m hoping I can resurrect it somehow.

I asked around to find out what would have been the channel for this news to reach Csikszereda back in 1956, and was given a number of possible answers (nobody I asked was actually alive, so it was a bit of guesswork) – that they heard on Romanian media (which seems like it may have happened after the fact – it’s hard to imagine that 1956 Romanian government would have been happy about spreading news of a popular uprising); that they heard on Radio Free Europe; and that people near the border could get Hungarian TV and they would obviously have heard, and it would have got passed around Transylvania, slowly spreading eastwards. That last one appeals to me (aesthetically, not because I like the idea of people being denied information) – it conjures up bards and wandering minstrels and the like.

Anyway, the events, such as they were, were quite moving and passed by without incident, which is obviously more than can be said for the similar commemorations in Budapest.

Hungarian readers may be interested to learn that the 1956 events more or less destroyed the far left in the UK (obviously no major deal compared to what upheaval it caused in Hungary). After the seond world war, the communist party was quite strong in Britain, but 1956 split it completely asunder between those who supported the uprising and those who advocated mother Russia sending the tanks in. To this day, the derogatory slang term for Stalinists in the UK (yes there are some) is “tankies”.

Posted in csikszereda, history, hungary | 5 Comments »

October 23rd

Posted by Andy Hockley on 25 October, 2006

Bit of a busy week, round these parts as I am in sole charge of the little ones, but we’ll see if I can get through a quick post about Monday evening before the littlest one wakes up.

So, as mentioned earlier Monday was the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising in which a large number of very brave people rose up against their oppressive regime, and were eventually crushed with the assistance of the Soviet army. This obviously didn’t happen here, since we are not in Hungary, but there was a fairly large commemmoration event here. At 6.30 we went out to join the candelit march that was starting from “Freedom Square” outside our apartment. We couldn’t get a candle/torch, as they were reserved for bigwigs apparently, but undaunted we managed to get over the disappointment. The parade/march/walk/amble was conducted in almost complete silence (though I’m not sure if that was deliberate or just because people weren’t feeling very chatty), and led us up Timisoara Boulevard and then up past the theatre to the Hungarian Consulate. By the time we got there it was a fairly big gathering, of at least a couple of thousand, which for this town is a major turnout.

Speeches were spoken by various dignitaries – somebody from the Hungarian foreign ministry, the consul, some religious leader, a local politician one who has his own blog even (in Hungarian), and various others. It was getting a bit parky by this time, and Paula was getting tired so I led her home, while Erika and Bogi braved the nighttime chill of the Carpathians for a while longer, but not quite long enough to witness the unveiling of a new statue representing “The Angel of News” (I think). I saw it yesterday though, and it’s not the most attractive piece of public art I’ve ever seen, but probably I’ll get used to it.

I wanted to include some photos to give you a taste of the evening’s events, but sadly my camera chose that night to seemingly expire. I’m hoping I can resurrect it somehow.

I asked around to find out what would have been the channel for this news to reach Csikszereda back in 1956, and was given a number of possible answers (nobody I asked was actually alive, so it was a bit of guesswork) – that they heard on Romanian media (which seems like it may have happened after the fact – it’s hard to imagine that 1956 Romanian government would have been happy about spreading news of a popular uprising); that they heard on Radio Free Europe; and that people near the border could get Hungarian TV and they would obviously have heard, and it would have got passed around Transylvania, slowly spreading eastwards. That last one appeals to me (aesthetically, not because I like the idea of people being denied information) – it conjures up bards and wandering minstrels and the like.

Anyway, the events, such as they were, were quite moving and passed by without incident, which is obviously more than can be said for the similar commemorations in Budapest.

Hungarian readers may be interested to learn that the 1956 events more or less destroyed the far left in the UK (obviously no major deal compared to what upheaval it caused in Hungary). After the seond world war, the communist party was quite strong in Britain, but 1956 split it completely asunder between those who supported the uprising and those who advocated mother Russia sending the tanks in. To this day, the derogatory slang term for Stalinists in the UK (yes there are some) is “tankies”.

Posted in csikszereda, history, hungary | 5 Comments »

Who are the Szekely?

Posted by Andy Hockley on 19 March, 2006

I was searching through Google News to see whether any English language media had reported anything about the whole March 15th thing here, and there really wasn’t a great deal, but I did notice a repeated misconception about who the Szekely are. At least two reports essentially equated the Szekely with the Hungarian population of Romania, which is definitely not my understanding of the situation. And given that I’m married to a Hungarian Romanian who is not a Szekely, I reckon my understanding is correct. So anyway, I thought I’d do a bit of research and try and fill in the gaps in my knowledge about who the Szekely are and let you know what I found out. After all, I did choose a Szekely themed URL for this site when I set it up, so I really ought to have a clue who they are.

The origins of the “Szeklers” (this is the German word for the group, and apparently seems to be the official English language version too, though I reckon outside of Hungary, Romania and ethnographic faculties of universities, there are about 3 native English speakers who have even heard of the Szekely) are not certain. Some say there are basically a subset of the Magyars who came to Europe from Central Asia however many hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Others that they are not originally Magyar, but from other places – they could be Turkish, Scythian or Hittite, for example. One thing that aids the Turkish theory is the fact that ancient Szekely writing is runic.

Anyway, what ended up happening is that the Szekelys, warriors like the Saxons, were assigned to the border regions of the Hungarian empire, with them basically lining the Eastern Carpathians (the Saxons took the Southern Carpathians). Transylvania for many years was known as the “union of three nations” – three areas ruled by the Saxons, the Szekely, and the Hungarian nobility. Anyway, what this means is that while there’s no obvious ethnic difference between the Szekely and the Hungarians, and they both speak the same language, and both are predominantly Roman Catholic, it is more or less considered these days that the Hungarian speakers of Harghita, Cavasna and part of Mures counties are the Szekely, and the Hungarian speakers in the rest of Transylvania – Cluj, Targu Mures, Maramures, Oradea, Timisoara etc are Hungarians (and not Szekely). The Szekelys in general seem much more traditional and have held on to their folk culture very successfully.

I also discovered that there is another group known as the “Szekelys of Bucovina” who were descended from a group of around 1000 Szekelys who fled Szekelyföld in 1764 after the Austrians massacred around 400 Szekelys at Madefalva (Siculeni in Romanian) a village about 5 km north of here. They ended up in Bucovina (the other side of the mountains from here). One of the villages there they named “Istensegíts” (God Help Us), which gives you a sense of their flight. Their population grew to about 13,000, but after Bucovina became Romania they felt increasingly isolated, and eventually under some deal between Hungary and Romania (in 1941? This isn’t clear to me) they were all evacuated and used by the Hungarians in an attempt to Magyarise the area of Vojvodina (now in Serbia) (ie they were settled there to change the demographics of the area). This was fairly shortlived as Hungary ceded control of the area in the Second World War, and they were once again forced to flee. They eventually settled in Tolna county in Hungary where they live to this day.

So there you go, some background and information about the Szekely, so that if ever you encounter an article like this one, you can feel informed enough to think to yourself “Actually it’s not true to say Romania’s ethnic Hungarians, also known as Szeklers,” and feel all smug.

Posted in history, transylvania | 9 Comments »

Who are the Szekely?

Posted by Andy Hockley on 19 March, 2006

I was searching through Google News to see whether any English language media had reported anything about the whole March 15th thing here, and there really wasn’t a great deal, but I did notice a repeated misconception about who the Szekely are. At least two reports essentially equated the Szekely with the Hungarian population of Romania, which is definitely not my understanding of the situation. And given that I’m married to a Hungarian Romanian who is not a Szekely, I reckon my understanding is correct. So anyway, I thought I’d do a bit of research and try and fill in the gaps in my knowledge about who the Szekely are and let you know what I found out. After all, I did choose a Szekely themed URL for this site when I set it up, so I really ought to have a clue who they are.

The origins of the “Szeklers” (this is the German word for the group, and apparently seems to be the official English language version too, though I reckon outside of Hungary, Romania and ethnographic faculties of universities, there are about 3 native English speakers who have even heard of the Szekely) are not certain. Some say there are basically a subset of the Magyars who came to Europe from Central Asia however many hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Others that they are not originally Magyar, but from other places – they could be Turkish, Scythian or Hittite, for example. One thing that aids the Turkish theory is the fact that ancient Szekely writing is runic.

Anyway, what ended up happening is that the Szekelys, warriors like the Saxons, were assigned to the border regions of the Hungarian empire, with them basically lining the Eastern Carpathians (the Saxons took the Southern Carpathians). Transylvania for many years was known as the “union of three nations” – three areas ruled by the Saxons, the Szekely, and the Hungarian nobility. Anyway, what this means is that while there’s no obvious ethnic difference between the Szekely and the Hungarians, and they both speak the same language, and both are predominantly Roman Catholic, it is more or less considered these days that the Hungarian speakers of Harghita, Cavasna and part of Mures counties are the Szekely, and the Hungarian speakers in the rest of Transylvania – Cluj, Targu Mures, Maramures, Oradea, Timisoara etc are Hungarians (and not Szekely). The Szekelys in general seem much more traditional and have held on to their folk culture very successfully.

I also discovered that there is another group known as the “Szekelys of Bucovina” who were descended from a group of around 1000 Szekelys who fled Szekelyföld in 1764 after the Austrians massacred around 400 Szekelys at Madefalva (Siculeni in Romanian) a village about 5 km north of here. They ended up in Bucovina (the other side of the mountains from here). One of the villages there they named “Istensegíts” (God Help Us), which gives you a sense of their flight. Their population grew to about 13,000, but after Bucovina became Romania they felt increasingly isolated, and eventually under some deal between Hungary and Romania (in 1941? This isn’t clear to me) they were all evacuated and used by the Hungarians in an attempt to Magyarise the area of Vojvodina (now in Serbia) (ie they were settled there to change the demographics of the area). This was fairly shortlived as Hungary ceded control of the area in the Second World War, and they were once again forced to flee. They eventually settled in Tolna county in Hungary where they live to this day.

So there you go, some background and information about the Szekely, so that if ever you encounter an article like this one, you can feel informed enough to think to yourself “Actually it’s not true to say Romania’s ethnic Hungarians, also known as Szeklers,” and feel all smug.

Posted in history, transylvania | 6 Comments »

The Wisdom of the Ages

Posted by Andy Hockley on 18 February, 2006

It is a well known fact that Norman Wisdom is incredibly famous in Albania. Norman Wisdom, in case you are not Albanian, is a British “slapstick comedy actor” and music hall style comedian. He was popular (though I’m not sure how popular) in the UK in the 50s and possibly early 60s. To people of my generation, though, he is actually more famous for being famous in Albania than he is for his body of work – of which, as far as I’m aware, I have seen precisely none. Apparently, Enver Hoxha was a big fan and thus the legend of Pitkin was born. (Pitkin is, I think, a character he played in one of his films). Ask any Albanian over 30 about Pitkin and they’ll wax lyrical for hours. (I have never actually tested this, but I am reliably informed that it is the case. In some kind of hands-across-the-Balkans gesture of friendship/publicity stunt a few years ago when the England football team came to Tirana for a match, they brought Wisdom with them, and the stadium rose as one to salute the octogenarian star.)

Recently I have discovered that Wisdom, here known simply as “Norman”, is very popular in Romania too. Perhaps Ceausescu was introduced to him by Hoxha at a dinner party or at a conference of slightly maverick communist dictators. I think his popularity may be slightly less than in Albania (I have never seen a Norman film on Romanian TV, and in Tirana, if the slightly mocking media reports filed by British journalists are anything to go by, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t an entire channel devoted to his oeuvre.)

This places Norman firmly in the category of strange and somewhat obscure things that Romanians get slightly wistful about. Another is Bollywood movies. As far as I can ascertain, western films were to all intents and purposes banned during the Communist years, but when the cinemas had no propaganda films or reworkings of Tolstoy to show, films were imported from India to fill in the gaps. In fact, they still seem to be relatively popular, possibly for nostalgia reasons, and one or two of the TV channels regularly show them – though they have been shunted out of the cinemas by endless violent Hollywood action films.

Another very odd one is Smokie. I would have imagined (if I’d ever bothered to think abut it) that Smokie were only known and barely remembered by British people of between about 35 and 45. For those that don’t know, they were a 70s group of long haired blokes who sang poorly written ballads in a kind of sub-Rod Stewart gravelly voice (I was going to refer to them as a proto boy band, but even at the height of the popularity I seem to remember they looked at least 30 – at least when the young me saw them on Top of the Pops). I had, of course, entirely forgotten about them, and would have been quite happy had it stayed that way. But then, a few months ago I was at a party, and suddenly one of their tunes came on. “Good God,” I thought, “this takes me back. I wonder who put this on and why”. And then I noticed that the whole room was singing along to it. More or less everyone – old, young and in between. I also need to mention here that over half of the people at this party didn’t speak any English at all. Yet here they were singing along to the frankly rubbish mid 70s soppy ode to personal tragedy “Living Next Door to Alice”.

But remarkably that was not to be the end of my moments of jaw dropping amazement that night. Far from it. The turgid drone reached its chorus, and as the last line of said chorus drained away “And for 24 years I’ve been living next door to Alice”, the room, as one, punctuated the line with (in English) a group shout of “Who the fuck is Alice?” That moment, I’m quite sure, will live with me for ever. This was a party in a village to celebrate a baptism, not some group of post-modern irony obsessed lovers of retro-chic. The guests were of all ages, and many walks of life. If you’ve never seen an old Transylvanian villager with few teeth and no English whatsoever, jump to his feet and shout “Who the fuck is Alice?”, well, frankly, you haven’t lived.

I have since found out that actually this version of the song was actually a recorded one, and was released by Smokie themselves, some years after their initial fame – in the 90s sometime I think- with the extra shouty bit added in by fat and rubbish racist comedian Roy “Chubby” Brown. I missed it by virtue of being out of the reach of English novelty records at the time, but clearly much of Europe was infected. Asking around I have discovered sightings (soundings?) of this oh-so-hilarious update being sung by the general public from Hamburg to Istanbul and beyond.

But, Smokie’s insidious reach extends beyond even this reworking of their most famous hit. They are known for other of their songs which don’t even have added sweary bits. I am, frankly, baffled by their appeal. It’s a rum do, and no mistake.

Oh, and in case you don’t believe me about Albania,
here’s a BBC piece from the time of that football match I mentioned.

Posted in history, music, romania | 3 Comments »

The Wisdom of the Ages

Posted by Andy Hockley on 18 February, 2006

It is a well known fact that Norman Wisdom is incredibly famous in Albania. Norman Wisdom, in case you are not Albanian, is a British “slapstick comedy actor” and music hall style comedian. He was popular (though I’m not sure how popular) in the UK in the 50s and possibly early 60s. To people of my generation, though, he is actually more famous for being famous in Albania than he is for his body of work – of which, as far as I’m aware, I have seen precisely none. Apparently, Enver Hoxha was a big fan and thus the legend of Pitkin was born. (Pitkin is, I think, a character he played in one of his films). Ask any Albanian over 30 about Pitkin and they’ll wax lyrical for hours. (I have never actually tested this, but I am reliably informed that it is the case. In some kind of hands-across-the-Balkans gesture of friendship/publicity stunt a few years ago when the England football team came to Tirana for a match, they brought Wisdom with them, and the stadium rose as one to salute the octogenarian star.)

Recently I have discovered that Wisdom, here known simply as “Norman”, is very popular in Romania too. Perhaps Ceausescu was introduced to him by Hoxha at a dinner party or at a conference of slightly maverick communist dictators. I think his popularity may be slightly less than in Albania (I have never seen a Norman film on Romanian TV, and in Tirana, if the slightly mocking media reports filed by British journalists are anything to go by, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t an entire channel devoted to his oeuvre.)

This places Norman firmly in the category of strange and somewhat obscure things that Romanians get slightly wistful about. Another is Bollywood movies. As far as I can ascertain, western films were to all intents and purposes banned during the Communist years, but when the cinemas had no propaganda films or reworkings of Tolstoy to show, films were imported from India to fill in the gaps. In fact, they still seem to be relatively popular, possibly for nostalgia reasons, and one or two of the TV channels regularly show them – though they have been shunted out of the cinemas by endless violent Hollywood action films.

Another very odd one is Smokie. I would have imagined (if I’d ever bothered to think abut it) that Smokie were only known and barely remembered by British people of between about 35 and 45. For those that don’t know, they were a 70s group of long haired blokes who sang poorly written ballads in a kind of sub-Rod Stewart gravelly voice (I was going to refer to them as a proto boy band, but even at the height of the popularity I seem to remember they looked at least 30 – at least when the young me saw them on Top of the Pops). I had, of course, entirely forgotten about them, and would have been quite happy had it stayed that way. But then, a few months ago I was at a party, and suddenly one of their tunes came on. “Good God,” I thought, “this takes me back. I wonder who put this on and why”. And then I noticed that the whole room was singing along to it. More or less everyone – old, young and in between. I also need to mention here that over half of the people at this party didn’t speak any English at all. Yet here they were singing along to the frankly rubbish mid 70s soppy ode to personal tragedy “Living Next Door to Alice”.

But remarkably that was not to be the end of my moments of jaw dropping amazement that night. Far from it. The turgid drone reached its chorus, and as the last line of said chorus drained away “And for 24 years I’ve been living next door to Alice”, the room, as one, punctuated the line with (in English) a group shout of “Who the fuck is Alice?” That moment, I’m quite sure, will live with me for ever. This was a party in a village to celebrate a baptism, not some group of post-modern irony obsessed lovers of retro-chic. The guests were of all ages, and many walks of life. If you’ve never seen an old Transylvanian villager with few teeth and no English whatsoever, jump to his feet and shout “Who the fuck is Alice?”, well, frankly, you haven’t lived.

I have since found out that actually this version of the song was actually a recorded one, and was released by Smokie themselves, some years after their initial fame – in the 90s sometime I think- with the extra shouty bit added in by fat and rubbish racist comedian Roy “Chubby” Brown. I missed it by virtue of being out of the reach of English novelty records at the time, but clearly much of Europe was infected. Asking around I have discovered sightings (soundings?) of this oh-so-hilarious update being sung by the general public from Hamburg to Istanbul and beyond.

But, Smokie’s insidious reach extends beyond even this reworking of their most famous hit. They are known for other of their songs which don’t even have added sweary bits. I am, frankly, baffled by their appeal. It’s a rum do, and no mistake.

Oh, and in case you don’t believe me about Albania,
here’s a BBC piece from the time of that football match I mentioned.

Posted in history, music, romania | 3 Comments »