Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Norman Wisdom and an Albanian summer



One of the stranger aspects of traveling in Albania, making my way down the coast, in the mid-90s, was encountering people who wanted to talk about Norman Wisdom, who died today. This was not immediately explicable: how an English comic actor whose career peaked in the 1960s came to be a talking point amongst Albanians - young and old - in the 90s.

It transpired that his films were the only foreign films allowed to be shown in the isolated 'Communist paradise' that was Albania under Enver Hoxha. He was known as 'Pitkin' his principal character, a put upon worker, victimized by his boss, presumably making him a working class hero (though I would have thought that a worker being victimized by his boss would be a good image of Albania under Hoxha). As the Albanian ambassador said today: he gave us something to laugh about when opportunities to do so were severely limited.

I, however, was greatly challenged to remember his films and this was seen as a terrible dereliction of cultural homage. His version of intensely physical humour, coupled with a very sentimental pathos, failed to connect. I did see later, rarer performances when, like many fine comic actors, he demonstrated a great ability at understated drama.

Strange are the pathways of memory - the death of an English comic recalling to mind a wonderful summer, weaving down the Albanian coast, virtually unspoilt (except by Hoxha's obsessive building of bunkers, now abandoned or put to alternate use): an adventure. Turning up each evening in a village square, looking foreign and homeless, gathering offers of hospitality, finding a common language of smattered English, garbled Italian and gesture. Enjoying an evening of food and raki, sleeping well, setting off each morning on foot, by bus, once by donkey and cart. Going from the border with Montenegro in the north to the Greek in the south only once staying in a hotel (with a morose owner determined to repeatedly claim the absence of lunch)! It was here I encountered dynamite fishing, woken to the sound of booming whooshing water, I looked out from my balcony to see a fisherman hurling sticks into the water and gleaning the stunned fish into his loaded boat!

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