Violence and cheap sex mock fading memories of Gallic charm
Monday 14 August 1995
These days, that would be unfair to Stockton-on-Tees. Communist Belgrade was never a charismatic place. Now it is a symbol of Serbia itself, worn out, corrupted and sullen.
Here was the bench in Belgrade station where I had laid my 19-year-old head on my rucksack and slept for a night or two, waiting for the slow train south to the Aegean. A peasant woman with a small child on her breast snored on my bench, surrounded by bundles of goods. Tito's portrait had vanished from the dilapidated waiting- room. An electronic train-indicator had been installed but it did not work and the trains no longer run to Split, Sarajevo, Zagreb or Rijeka. A pungent odour still issued forth from the kebab stand to which my suburban teenage stomach had succumbed.
Returning after almost 20 years, Belgrade station and the square beyond showed that in Serbia, development had stood still. It still felt like the Seventies here: the drab shops, the ill-cut clothes of man-made fibres, the trams packed with dour humanity, the plastic typewriters, the raucous rock music, the one lugubrious pornographic cinema which rejoiced in the name of The Partisan: all functioning in a ruined economy dominated by the almighty Deutschmark.
In 1953, the Swiss cult travel writer Nicolas Bouvier stopped over en route to Tehran and Kabul.
In a Belgrade cafe sat four young whores, chewing melon seeds while they listened to an accordion player.
"They had lovely smooth tanned knees," wrote Bouvier, "a bit dirty when they had just come in from practising their trade on a nearby embankment."
The Francophile bourgeoisie still practised their pre-war courtesies: "introductions, low bows, phrases of welcome in charming, old-fashioned French ... passing the time by re-reading Balzac or Zola."
That, at least, remains consistent. But the bourgeoisie has gone, bankrupted by hyper-inflation which reached 315 million per cent and locked out of the profiteers' wartime economy. The emblems of modern Serbia are not the heroic partisan statues erected around Belgrade but the black-marketeers at each crossroads, selling petrol in plastic cans.
United Nations sanctions have brought President Slobodan Milosevic to his knees. They have, however, imposed on Belgrade a weird sense of isolation. In the International Press Centre, a dusty bar and antiquated telephones seemed like a parody on the days when the Yugoslav media was the liveliest east of the Iron Curtain.
I met a friend from the Middle East who had been a star reporter for the Tanjug news agency. But Tanjug was now Milosevic's news agency and, as my friend sipped a whisky, he told me that he had felt obliged to quit. "Here you are either incredibly rich or terribly poor," he said. The average per capita income was perhaps $1,000 (pounds 600) and our whiskies cost eight dollars each.
In one or two luxury hotels you can see the winners who have done well out of the war. The aura of violence and cheap sex is all-pervasive. Bouvier's innocent teenage whores have long gone. Today's look is that of the gangster's moll: tight miniskirts, lurid make-up and tumbling curls. They have elevated vulgarity to an art form. They probably think Zola makes strapless dresses.
Little wonder Milosevic's secret police do not want the refugee Krajina Serbs to come Belgrade. You never know whom they might settle accounts with first.
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Weather bomb in pictures: Storms cuts power for tens of thousands – and snow is on the way
Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
Russell Brand was rendered speechless on Question Time by this man
Fury at Airbus after it hints the super-jumbo may be mothballed
Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
New era of cheap oil 'will destroy green revolution'
Ukip founder Alan Sked and Nigel Farage 'begged Enoch Powell to stand as a candidate'
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant
£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...
£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...
£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...
£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...