Skateboards, Tanks & Ecstasy Tablets

There are not many borders in Europe where the cops sell ecstasy. There are also not many countries in Europe currently boasting one hundred per-cent employment. In Transnistria they have it all sorted. The only problem is the country doesn’t officially exist.

Also, you don’t get to keep the pills. It’s a clever recycling initiative. Anyone thick enough to purchase drugs from the man with the gun in the uniform, will subsequently be greeted by another man with a gun in a uniform about ten miles down the road. The yokes are found, the bribe is paid, and the merchandise whisked back to the border for the next eejit’s misfortune.

It’s highly symbolic as the outsider’s entrance into this murky, but fascinating, little corner of Europe.

A breakaway, separatist territory in the east of Moldova, Transnistria is a thin sliver of land bordering Ukraine, separated from the rest of Moldova by the Dniester river. Michael Palin went there and had the craic, but he was from the BBC and had a big camera crew, so he only saw the marching bands and didn’t get offered any pills. He doesn’t look like the type anyway.

I didn’t have a big camera crew or the BBC. I had a Lada with a cracked window, a chain-smoking driver, and a very bad hangover. I also had Franko, and he needed to vomit. We were much more Monty Python than Michael Palin.

As the Lada rattled towards the border I had all sorts of pre-conceived ideas as to what it would be like inside this murky micro-nation. The EU has called Transnistria “a black hole in which illegal trade in arms, the trafficking in human beings and the laundering of criminal finance was carried on”. The locals are subject to a night-time curfew. Would we even get in?

To have any chance of crossing the border you need a Russian speaker. Without this essential element you wont get offered the chance to buy the pills in the first place. You’ll be shaken down, turned around, and sent back to wherever you came from. But we were sorted – our Lada-driving chain-smoker spoke both Moldovan and Russian.

As we approached the border our driver stopped. He turned around, fag in mouth, and demanded we hand him over our passports and stay in the car. The Department of Foreign Affairs would definitely frown upon sitting in a Lada with no passport on the border of a country that doesn’t exist. With a cracked window and a severe hangover…

But not for the first time the Paddy passport worked its charm. Even the border guards in this shady non-existent country thought being Irish was hilarious, and they didn’t even know about that whole IMF thing. A Spud-Head victory. We were in.

Despite being repeatedly urged by NATO to withdraw from Transnistria, after crossing the border our chain smoking driver laughed as he pointed at the imposing Russian army base visible from the road into Tiraspol, the capital city. The Russians have permanently positioned an old Soviet tank – complete with hammer and sickle – facing across the Dniester, a symbolic message in case those bloody Moldovans get notions of reclaiming land still internationally recognised as theirs.

I spent the previous few nights in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, and experienced the sparse aesthetic of Europe’s poorest per-capita country. So on my way into Tiraspol I expected more babushkas at bus stops and roads with no footpaths. Instead I got teenage skaters in baggy jeans and baseball caps, doing tricks in front of that Soviet tank.

But perhaps the most striking thing about Tiraspol is the huge billboards positioned all over the city, displaying the stern image of Putin’s watchful face – making sure the locals don’t get notions. Putin’s pissed on every lamppost in the city; firmly marked his territory in his strategic little enclave.

But despite the billboards, Transnistria is officially self-governed, with their own parliament, police and postal system.

They even designed their own flag and currency, and came up with a new national anthem. One can only imagine that particular meeting.

Fresh from months of war, bandaged and bedraggled in a bullet-riddled building, armed to the teeth with crayons and sketchpads. Pure Monty Python territory – a Credit Union poster competition for militant separatists. Accompanied on piano in the corner by a locked land-mine victim, bashing out the chords, trying to come up with a national anthem on the hoof. And if that went well, he’d probably have a lash at the Eurovision too.

But sadly for the piano-playing separatists, despite geographically being in Europe, Transnistria doesn’t qualify for the Eurovision. They don’t really qualify for anything. Transnistria’s political status remains up in the air. Internationally unrecognised, yet in effect an independent state. This sketchy political status has it’s definite benefits…..

It is widely alleged that the Russians now run all their dirty work through Transnistria. People trafficking, weapons and drugs, along with the disposal of nuclear waste. And why not; the place doesn’t even exist after all. It’s the perfect little set-up for keeping your hands clean. As long as you piss on all the lampposts.

But despite these dark allegations, the murky political set-up, and the very fact the state doesn’t officially exist, the quality of life for those baggy-jeaned skaters in front of that Soviet tank seemed so much higher than on the other side of the Dniestr river, on the grim streets of Chisinau. The conclusions drawn from this are confusing. How can the standard of living be higher in this shady banana republic, than in either of the two real countries that surround it?

Or maybe it’s all much simpler. Maybe that fag-smoking Lada-driver pulled a pure Palin on me too.

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Roesy and The Belfies…

“I can’t have my photo taken with her. I can’t even be seen with her. We’re having an affair and her fella would kill me.”

I was out shooting people on the streets of Belfast. But in the contemporary sense of the word – armed was I only with camera. The idea was to ask people to stare straight into that camera for 60 seconds, while I filmed them.

The antidote to today’s instant ‘selfie’ method of taking portraits. ‘The Belfies‘, if you will…

When you’re talking about a minute, faces get tired. Smiles start to drop. But nobody scowled. It was all for the art. But sixty seconds seemed a bit excessive. Everyone involved was getting awkward.

Then the singer-songwriter Roesy contacted me. A fellow Birr Bog-Merchant, we’ve known each other years. Also a painter, we’ve done art shows together during Vintage Week in Birr. He consistently outsold me in our native town. Not that I’m bitter. I’ve moved on…

So after talking to my contemporary about a collaboration, I went out on the streets to get more “Belfies” for a music video for a track from his forthcoming album ‘Wolf Counsel’. This time around it was cold, and the Christmas market in the background at City Hall was ruining all my shots. Not that I’m bitter. I’ve moved on…

And just like the two nights I spent on the streets of Dublin sleeping rough a few months ago, I knew I had to bring some hardware. So like the last time, I bought twenty fags I’d no interest in smoking. Those essential ice-breakers that worked so well down on the cracked pavements of the capital.

Peddling ‘fegs’, as they call them up here. But I’m not pushing the benefits of respertory illness on anyone. Non-smokers – and children who haven’t decided yet – were obviously exempt. Ironically, a half-naked rugby team sung Christmas carols for a cancer charity behind me, as I filmed my ‘feg’ smokers in action.

As an unexpected result, the first cut of the music video looked like some form of pro-cigarette campaign. Not exactly what I was after. So I had to go out on the streets again.

Lurking around in the Christmas cold, camera and tripod at the ready. Waiting to find another victim to shoot. The obvious target was buskers. But Belfast is home to a breed of busking we don’t see quite as much of down south of the border.

Amped-up with the rest of the strummers and the drummers are a particularly persistent group of buskers. Out on those streets, armed to the teeth with leaflets and optimism. Busking the benefits of Jesus to anyone who’ll listen.

Usually I give them a good run-out – a pre-season practice match to exercise their miraculous patter on a potential convert. But this time I wasn’t biting. I wanted to avoid any sort of buskers – religious or otherwise – seen as this was a music video.

Until I saw an elderly American Evangelist I just couldn’t ignore.

This guy was something special. This guy was carrying a massive metal crucifix over his shoulder. With a little wheel on the end of its base, so it wouldn’t drag along the road as he lugged it around. Like those wheels you see on posh amputee dogs, when they’ve got no back legs.

He told me he’s been traveling across the world with this cross for the last 35 years. Spreading the good word. He had a leaflet, with pictures of himself – everywhere from the Soviet Union to El Salvador. Just him, and his cross. And his bank details. Mastercard or Visa, he was equal opportunities. Someone has to fund his global travel. And Jesus was never known for booking flights.

So after reading his leaflet, I asked him could I have a go on his cross. At first he wasn’t too keen, but my persistence convinced him. So he got out from underneath it, and placed it down on upon my shoulders. It was hollow and light-weight. For a crucifix….

I felt he was cheating a bit, between the dog-wheel and the light-weight frame. I told him I expected it to be heavier. He said it used to be heavier, but he had to change it, now he was over sixty. It reminded me of the bit in Only Fools and Horses, where Trigger gets an award from the council for using the same road sweeping-brush for twenty years. Then Trigger reveals that same brush has had eight new handles, and twelve new heads.

But Jesus or no Jesus, I was still short a few ‘Belfies’ for Roesy. So I went back out shooting people on the streets of Belfast. It was Black Friday, and people were getting arrested for boxing the heads off each other in supermarkets. The Peelers were all tooled-up with armed response units on the Ormeau Road. I never knew people took shopping so seriously.

The significance of Roesy’s song’s title only struck me while I was out there on those cold Belfast streets. His song is called ‘Learning to Crawl’, and maybe that’s what’s happening here now in this city. ‘The Belfies’ have been on their knees for forty years of chaos – the likes of which Roesy and I will never understand – coming from our cosy Vintage Week world of Midlands Ireland.

I keep wondering how the same project would’ve worked out in Dublin, where the Hipsters have no such sense of perspective to remove them from their own holes for a minute to the time for a quick laugh at themselves.

Because of all the people on the streets of Belfast I approached, only a few turned me down.

Not that I’m bitter. I’ve moved on. And to me, that’s what they’ve done here too, as far as my experiences shooting people on the street goes.

‘Learning To Crawl’ Roesy –

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The Iron Man

Thatcher with crop4 – Sunday Independent article Official Trailer Official Facebook Page

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Escape to Mosney…

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The ha'Penny Hustlers

The Ha’Penny Hustlers

Feature I wrote originally published in The Sunday Independent after going ‘undercover’ homeless for a couple of nights on the streets of Dublin.

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Avoid the acid and lay off the pints (of milk)

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Pints and Fags and Blaming it all on Bertie

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