Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Pixels and picking winners

Those familiar with the sort of Bible stories that get told to children will know about Jonah. He's the guy who was running from God, only to become the cause of a big storm necessitating his being dispatched to the depths only to spend a long weekend in a large fish. If anyone was ever a jinx on a journey he was it. In a tenuously connected kind of way I feel I was a jinx on Saturday night's attempt to watch the Eurovision final.

As regular readers will have noted, I wasn't expecting to get the chance to take in this annual celebration of European entertainment. I therefore was not particularly disappointed when most of the evening's viewing looked like the image above. Whether this was the fault of the Croatian TV channel carrying the event, some technical issue further down the line or the fact I was present I don't know. What I did learn is that cynicism about the event is more widespread than I'd realised.

Conversation on the evening revolved around which countries could afford to host the event next year: the winner was clearly only going to come from one of these nations. These left a pretty short shortlist from which to guess the winning entry. Last night a local friend was condemning the hypocrisy of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia voting for each other. “They hate each other” was how she put it. Maybe they do, maybe they don't, but nobody's fooled into thinking neighbourly block voting doesn't exist. As our German team mate reminded us, the UK's problem is we have no neighbours. This may be true but maybe she wasn't aware three Englishmen were kind enough to write the German entry for them. What a game!

Monday, 28 May 2012


This time last year I uploaded a video showing me chickening out of a first swim for summer 2011. We were in Gradac, Croatia, for a Novi Most team retreat and trying to make the most of a few days by the coast. This weekend we were back in the same place for the same reason. However the outcome of the 'will I, won't I?' swimming question was not the same. In an relatively uncharacteristic act of bravery in the face of less-than-warm water I took the plunge...remembering, of course, to take the camera with me so the pain was not in vain. That much was to be expected!

Thursday, 24 May 2012

I won't be watching

I won't be watching this year's Eurovision Song Contest. This may not mean much to UK readers, less still to US ones, but it puts me firmly out-of-step with the prevailing culture here in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It's not that I'm boycotting the event or attempting to display some assumed cultural superiority, it's simply a case of a calender clash; that and the disappointment the act I favoured didn't make it out of the Semi-Final the other night. I am no longer bothered by Saturday's results.

I was never going to root for BiH's entry – I haven't heard it but people who have haven't exactly encouraged me to – nor do I care for the crooning of old Engelbert. My money would go to Rambo Amadeus, partly because I have paid to see him perform in the past but mostly because his song is a brilliant satire of all things Euro. Unfortunately for Montenegro it seems that not everyone shares his sense of humour.

The second Semi-Final is tonight. If I have to take sides I'd like to throw my weight behind the beautifully name 'Litesound', a boy band from Belarus. Their piece of painting-by-numbers Europop manages to contain almost every lyrical cliché know to man. Take, for example, the first chorus: Whatever's standing in my way,
We'll make it through the day, Cause we are the winners,
We are the heroes. Yes, the song is called 'We are the heroes' and, judging by the video, in their own minds they clearly are. Best of luck to them!

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Road works

The other day the M40 cropped up in a conversation with a friend. We discovered we have differing views on this sweeping stretch of motorway that connects London and Birmingham. I used to look forward to it as a relatively congestion-free chance to actually drive after grinding around the M25. She was too aware of the accident statistics people playing this kind of catch-up caused to ever enjoy using it.

At 89 miles long, or 143.2 kilometres, the M40 alone provides almost exactly double the amount of motorway capacity that the entire country of Bosnia and Herzegovina has. It is a country with only two sections of motorway: around 40 kilometres between the mid-Bosnian towan of Kakanj and Sarajevo, and around 30 kilometres heading north from Banja Luka to Gradiska, on the border with Croatia. I have driven both sections end-to-end several times.

The good news is more is on its way. BiH's Federation government has just signed an agreement worth 115 million euros with a Turkish company to build five kilometres of motorway. This new road, including two tunnels and a bridge, will head south from Sarajevo, as part of a 20 kilometre section that will start to connect Sarajevo to Tarcin and Konjic before continuing to Mostar and the Adriatic coast. I won't be holding my breath for faster travel though: Balkan Insight reports this work won't see completion for at least two years. Five kilometres in two years sounds a lot like the M25!

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Drop Everything

"Drop everything" was the thought that went through my mind when I saw the second round of unseasonable snow this morning. Round one came just as Manchester City wrapped up their first Premier League title on Sunday. I don't know what was more surprising: that Edin Dzeko scored or to suddenly look out of the window to see large white flakes falling from the sky! Round two happened overnight. The temptation to grab my snowboard and head for the hills was very real, but I resisted. For one thing, the kombi now has its summer tyres on, and there's no knowing what the state of the trail towards the top of the mountain would have been like. Perhaps the more pressing reason for restraint was the meetings to go to and courses to teach that were already in the diary. "Drop everything" is a romantic idea but not always a practical or responsible one. The bonus of sticking to the plan was having a cracking songwriting session this afternoon. So I'm not complaining!

Friday, 11 May 2012

A song and dance or two...

You'll spot maybe half a dozen umbrellas in this video, if you watch closely enough. What you won't see is any footage of the two enormous thunder storms that sought to disrupt last Thursday afternoon's performances. The first of these storms was freakishly heavy, with a healthy dose of hail mixed in with the torrential rain. It came on so hard and fast that, despite being under cover, our PA desk looked like it had just take a shower. The area where you see people dancing was a lake just half an hour before some of this footage was filmed.

What this video does show is young people getting up to perform in front of their peers and their community, a few of them for the very first time. (All the musicians attend Novi Most music courses with me or Budo.) You'll also see some of the organisers, and the Director of Novi Most, enjoying a moment of madness as rain-stopped-play once again. The final performances happened inside, although in the rush of re-rigging the PA yet again very little of this was captured on video. Of what was, I'd have liked to include a clip of Katie and I performing Handbags and Gladrags but I know she wouldn't thank me for that. So you'll just have to imagine the song: acoustic guitar, oboe and me straining for the high notes. Very rock'n'roll!    

Thursday, 10 May 2012

An artistic triumph

If you read our previous post you will know already that last Thursday was no ordinary day. While some of that was for reasons way beyond our control this video captures the part of the extraordinary that we planned. It's not exactly the video we thought we would make because many of the young people and the other adult organisers who had worked on preparing the project were not able to make the delayed start to deploying the art drop around Jajce. What you see is the work of more people than you see in the video. What you see is also only one part of what the project presented; this should soon be followed by a video highlighting the music and dance performances that happened during the afternoon.

Part of the aim of Project Avant-Garde was to create art that the general public could take home and keep. Most of the art you see in this video will now be found in houses or apartments in and around Jajce. Some of it relocated to shops and cafe bars around the main street. Sadly a few pieces were lost to the torrential rain that punctuated the afternoon, but even this could not dampen the enthusiasm of those worked so hard to make their community a better place. It was no ordinary day: the day was a successful exercise in the art of overcoming; a triumph of hope and creativity over adversity.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Stark contrast.

It is not every morning you are shaken from your sleep by the sound of a gun fight; nor that this is immediately followed by the sound of someone running under your bedroom window; nor that you get to take a photograph like this from the comfort of your own living room. But that was last Thursday in Jajce. It was a day that was supposed to have been all about Project Avant-Guarde, a street-art project Rowan has been part of organising for the past couple of months. However a rare armed robbery, or attempted robbery, got in there early in an apparent attempt to steal its thunder.

Real thunder and lightening had a go at playing with the best laid plans too. Our PA equipment got caught in a freakishly fast and heavy hail storm. For a moment I thought our mixing desk might have shipped a little too much water to work again, but careful use of kitchen towel, with the aid of gravity and a hair dryer seemed to save the day. Going into details about the Project is best saved until we've edited together video footage from the day. A detailed time-line of our unexpected wake-up call, and other highlights of a crazy day, can be found on Katie's blog.

Katie was staying with us to cover the Project as part of her work as journalist for Novi Most. I had also asked her to play oboe with me on an acoustic performance of Handbags and Gladrags, as part of the Project's music and dance presentation. Although I was playing guitar and not piano it was still a lot of fun, at least for me! It was the first time I've ever played with someone playing oboe and very likely the first time most of our audience had heard an oboe played live. I also gave a first live performance of a song I wrote during our time in Mostar. These two combined went a long way to offset the multiple riggings and de-riggings of the PA and extensive cable cleaning that marked my main involvement in the presentation.

Hopefully for all the young people involved in the Project it will be a day they remember not for the fatal shooting that occurred in the early hours of the morning but for being a day when they used their creativity and energy to try and make their town a better place. As contrasts go the one between four men trying to take what wasn't theirs by force and a group of young people giving away what they have created for free couldn't be more stark. We all know which the world needs more of.