In this blogposting…
* Planking:  2
* Middlesbrough
* The World - A Truckshunter Geography:  2
Të vazhdojë me kujdes - dhe të kënaqeni!

The awe-inspiring picture above was sent to me by Ellie; it’s of her son planking in a pub.  I like him already, and he has inspired me to attempt the feat at our next AGM.

No, seriously.

Thanks Ellie.

A few days ago, as I was lounging indulgently atop the family ottoman, enjoying an iced finger and a warming afternoon posset, my ever-curious eye lighted on an intriguing little news nugget tucked away on page 44 of The Guardian.  It was concerned with the doings - or the lack of them - of Sir Stuart Bell, who is being hailed as England’s laziest MP.

He is 73 years old and has not held an open constituency surgery for 14 years.  Apparently he refuses to answer his phone (even though his wife is paid £35,000 a year as his ‘office manager’) and, by all accounts, spends quite a lot of time living in France, where he once wrote an erotic novel called Paris Sixty Nine, of which this is an extract…

(WARNING: Those of a nervous disposition should avoid the following paragraph at all costs.) 

'And she keeps on sucking, sucking and nibbling and filling me with yearning, with desire to thrust her back on the bed now,  strap her to it the way the schoolteacher had shown me… I wanted that she be tied to the bed and I dominate her, rape her, burst inside her and be cleansed.’

As you’d expect with verbiage as laughably florid as that, Sir Stuart is a staunch Christian and churchman; in the Commons debate about the equalisation of the age of consent, he said that it was not ‘morally right or socially desirable' to give homosexuals the same rights as heterosexuals, believing that boys of 16 and 17 should be ‘protected’ - though not, interestingly, girls of the same age.

With a record and reputation like Sir Stuart’s, it seemed odd to me that there is a parliamentary constituency in England that consistently votes him to the Commons as their MP.  Then I discovered which constituency it was.

Middlesbrough East.

Only the mahogany-brained inhabitants of that benighted and tragic town could vote for a man like this, election after election.  They would, after all, vote for an earwig if it had a Labour rosette attached to its pincers.

When I first started my illustrious broadcasting career on Paul’s Saturday show and began my campaign of Bishop Auckland abuse, a listener called in to ask why I disliked that town so much.  ‘Bishop Auckland’, she said, ‘was heaven compared to Middlesbrough’.

I admitted at once that she had a fair point.  As dreary and as vapid as Bishop Auckland undoubtedly is, it is as nothing compared to the horrors of Middlesbrough - one of the very few towns I know with no redeeming features at all.  None whatsoever.

Its people are sour, unsmiling and resentful - as well they might be - and everything they say sounds like either an insult or a death-wish.

It has no history of any interest to anyone - not even its own inhabitants.  Until 1840 or so, there was nothing there but a farm.  Now, there are smelly, litter-strewn streets, a local diet of Glaswegian unhealthiness, industrial decrepitude, endemic and nationally-infamous violence and a population who, with Liverpudlian charmlessness and intellectual poverty, don’t seem to know or care about the cesspit they call home.

Unbelievably, it also has a university - which understandably calls itself ‘Teesside’ rather than ‘Middlesbrough’ university, which would be a contradiction in terms.

Even more unbelievably, it also has a recently-opened Museum of Modern Art.  For a town with Middlesbrough’s obvious problems, I cannot think of a more gloriously inappropriate development.  Like the town itself, it beggars belief.

You may think that I’m rather overstating my case here.  In my own defence, I should say that I grew up in the unbeautiful coal-mining area of East Durham and I know very well that not every town or village can be Barnard Castle or Alnwick or Corbridge (God forbid).  Everywhere must have its workaday towns and cities - places that exist to be lived in and worked in rather the be looked at.

That, however, is no excuse for the profound and peculiarly assertive ugliness of Middlesbrough - both literal and metaphorical.  If it was a human being, Middlesbrough would be beneath contempt.

It is a pitiful aberration of a town and any defence you might want to make of it would fall on deaf ears.  When, after all, did you last choose to visit it?  How often (be honest) have you ever heard anyone at all say ‘I know - let’s go to Middlesbrough for the day!’

Hell will be covered with a mile-deep layer of permafrost before I ever set foot in Middlesbrough again.  It takes people of a strangely uncritical mindset to contemplate even passing through it, let alone living in it.

The kind of people who vote for Sir Stuart Bell as their MP.

And so we resume our journey of discovery, surprise and occasional bewilderment as we investigate the flipside of the world’s countries, uncovering as we go those wayward and unexpected facts you don’t find in conventional textbooks and which make armchair travel so liberating.

This time, we shine our torch into the dark corners of…

Any country whose population idolised Norman Wisdom to the extent - and for as long - as Albania's did must be more than a bit weird, don’t you think?  For forty years, he was the only ‘Western’ celebrity whose films were permitted on Albanian tv and he was granted the freedom of the capital city - Tirana - in 1995.

On a visit in 2001, which coincided with the England football team playing Albania in Tirana, his presence at the training ground eclipsed even that of David Beckham. He appeared on the pitch before the start of the match wearing a half Albanian and half English football shirt. The crowd went berserk when he performed one of his trademark trips on his way out to the centre circle.

Comedian and writer Tony Hawks joined forces with Norman Wisdom and Sir Tim Rice, jointly releasing a single called Big In Albania in an attempt to enter the Albanian pop charts. It reached Number 18.

Yes, seriously weird.  (And I speak as one who has sat on the same sofa as Norman Wisdom - although not at the same time.)

When I was young, Albania was a bit of a mystery.  It was Europe’s only virtually closed country, ruled by the obligatory Mad Megalomaniac - in this case, a tyrant called Enver Hoxha (say Hodger) - who made Albania a kind of blueprint for North Korea.

One of his more interesting ideas was to ban the ownership of cars altogether, thus forcing people onto the country’s notorious trains - which, for decades, were by far the cheapest and slowest in the whole of Europe.  It cost less than £5 to travel the entire length of the country - a journey that usually took at least two days (in a country about half the size of England) in trains that often had no windows and, sometimes, no floor either.

Problems arose, though, when cars were finally legalised in 1992.  After 52 years without them, Albania had no traffic laws, no traffic lights, very few paved roads and no system to introduce driving licences. Cars were routinely stolen in Western Europe and smuggled across the border - the most-prized being Mercedes-Benz.

The result was chaos, with Tirana alone having 208 car-related deaths from March to September of 1992. At the time, this was the highest death rate per capita in all of Europe.

Quite a country, huh?

In a way, it’s hardly surprising that Albania was - and, in many ways, remains - something of a European mystery.  For a start, it has Europe’s highest per capita Muslim population - over 70% - having been conquered and administered by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century.

Secondly, it was home to the wonderfully flamboyant and eccentric King Zog, whose glorious picture I couldn’t resist adding here.  He ruled the country until it fell to Italy in 1939.
His Majesty was a lot more than merely flamboyant.  He survived 55 assassination attempts, during one of which he became the only national leader in such circumstances to actually fire back, wounding his assailant.

His son (Crown Prince Leka I) once bought Ronald Reagan an elephant from Harrods.

And his grandson (Prince Leka II) was born in a Johannesburg hospital room which, for one hour only, was declared to be Albanian territory.

One final oddity for you to consider before you make up your mind about spending a week or two in Albania.  The national currency is the lek.  There are 100 qindarka to each lek.  But it’s not as simple as that.  There are two valuations of the lek running side by side - the old lek and the new lek.  As far as I know, this set-up is unique in the world.  For ease of reference, I include here a picture of the rather handsome 100-(new)lek note, which shows the parliament building in Tirana.
If you decide to visit Albania - and why not? - you may find it useful to know the numbers from one to ten...

një, dy, tre or tri, katër, pesë, gjashtë, shtatë, tetë, nëntë, dhjetë

(Albanian is a bit if a mystery language, too.  Its nearest relative is Maltese.  Helpfully, Wikipedia tells us that it’s ‘a revised and merged form of the two main dialects, Gheg and Tosk, but with a bigger influence of Tosk compared to Gheg’. 


In any case, I find the similarity between the Albanian and French words for four quite unsettling.)

You may also find it useful to know the first words of the National Anthem…

United around the flag,
With one desire and one goal,
Let us pledge our word of honor
To fight for our salvation.

It goes on to say how, even though God himself has decreed that other countries will be destroyed, Albania will remain forever.  Which is comforting.

Finally...if you’re not sure where Albania actually is - it’s directly east of the heel of Italy, across the Adriatic, over the road from Corfu and next door to Greece.


My grateful thanks to Peter and Sid for providing much of the information about Albania in this posting.

Our next visit will be to Algeria.  Get to it, kids!

Post comments on this blog or email me:  truckshunters@googlemail.com


Ellie said...

I do hope that I will be able to attend the next AGM and I will bring my camera.
I laughed and laughed at your view of Middlesbrough - I have NEVER been ..........

truck said...

the man on the table looks funny.