The Day of the Mkhedrioni

mkhedrioni2When you hit the Georgian capital Tbilisi in 1992 you stayed at the Metechi Palace Hotel. Everyone did.

You got a taxi from the airport. It cost $5 and the driver spent more time negotiating bribes with the roadblocks manned by young men with AK-47s and leather jackets than he did at the wheel.

The city was a wreck, smoke-black from the recent fighting. Out the taxi window you saw the shops embracing free enterprise, selling Malaysian exercise books, Korean playing cards, fake Camel cigarettes, leather jackets from Turkey. The bookshops that sold only Soviet engineering texts and copies of the twelve century Georgian epic poem, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, that everyone in the country already owned. The Stalinist-style parliament building, half destroyed in the fighting, its supporting columns eaten away by RPG rounds. The street vendors selling orthodox icons, nesting dolls, glassware, ornamental daggers, the family silver.

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The Lion, the Midget, the Warlord

lioncoverCrazy Joe Gallo got a bullet in the head in April of 1972. I wrote a post about it here. He was celebrating his birthday in the early hours at Umberto’s Clam House when gunmen came in through the back door and started blasting.

Joe overturned the table and made it outside but died in the street. It was the end of the Gallo brother’s dream of forming their own Mafia family.

But back in the 1950s that dream was still alive. Joe, elder brother Larry (the brains of the outfit), and younger bother Albert (‘Kid Blast’) were up and coming foot soldiers in the Colombo crime family. They ran their own corner of Brooklyn for the family, collecting debts and protection money, and hustling any opportunities that came their way.

The three brothers were the Mafia warlords of their block. They had money, guns … and a real life lion in the basement. And a little person club-owning friend to walk him through the Brooklyn streets.

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From General Franco to Sgt. Pepper

taraIn Franco’s International Brigades I mentioned a mysterious Cuban called Miguel Ferreras who fought for both Franco and Hitler then married into the Guinness family and became stepfather to a man immortalised in The Beatles’ song A Day in the Life. Quite a ride.

Now  Paul Howard’s biography I Read the News Today, Oh Boy shines more light on Ferrera’s strange life and times through his relationship with stepson Tara Browne. Howard’s book is a great read that covers everything from swinging sixties London to Paris’ gay underworld. Definitely worth buying.

Ferrera’s stepson was a gilded youth born into money, privilege, and bohemia in Ireland. His mother was brewing heiress Oonagh Guinness. Browne was precociously advanced, quitting smoking at the age of eleven, and never getting more than a few year’s schooling. He got his own kind of education from his mother’s artistic friends.

In 1957 Oonagh married Cuban fashion designer Miguel Ferrera in New York. Oonagh had two ex-husbands and Ferrera quickly ditched his first wife (who’d given him an American passport and a few kids) when all that Guinness money walked into his showroom. Tara hated his new stepfather and so did most of Oonagh’s friends who considered Ferreras rude, provincial, and untalented as a designer. They didn’t know the half of it.

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Welcome To Bayelsa

Here’s the second guest post from Chris Hennemeyer, an expert in contemporary Africa. He’s spent more years than he cares to remember working international aid and development across the subcontinent. His first post described dealing with rebels in Liberia; in this article he guides us through the corruption and danger of Nigeria’s oil region. 

bayelsa1In a scene right out of the old mercenary movie The Dogs of War the parting words from the immigration officials who had, in their phraseology, “intercepted” me on the highway and determined I was working illegally in Nigeria, are “Welcome to Bayelsa!”

After four sweaty hours of detention and interrogation, I am finally released, with fraternal claps on the back and proclamations of eternal friendship, to enjoy the splendours of the state capital, Yenagoa.

Sitting like a blood clot right in the economic heart of Africa’s most populous country and biggest economy, awash with the source of its massive petroleum wealth, one would think Bayelsa state would have something to distinguish it other than schizophrenic immigration personnel. And one would be right, but for all the wrong reasons.

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The Revenge Of Yukio Mishima

mishima-balconyOn 3 March 1977 four men walked into an office block in the business district of central Tokyo and took hostages. They had a rifle, a pistol, and a Japanese ceremonial sword.

It all began at 16:30. The block was home to the headquarters of Keidanren (the Japanese Federation of Economic Organizations), mouthpiece of Japan’s biggest corporations. The men arrived in the foyer and asked to see Toshiwo Doko, 80-year-old head of the Federation. They were politely told he was on a business trip in Osaka.

The men produced their weapons and fired three shots into the ceiling then headed up to a seventh floor office where they took twelve people hostage, including the Federation’s managing director.

As riot police sealed off the building, the leader of the hostage takers, 42-year-old Shūsuke Nomura, issued communiques attacking the corruption and business plutocracy he claimed ruled modern Japan. It all sounded left-wing until Nomura starting condemning the post-WW2 Yalta and Potsdam conferences. He accused America and other nations of having deliberately crippled Japan to prevent it reclaiming its former imperial glory.

The police realised they were dealing with right-wing terrorists.

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Crossing The Cavally

Today we have a guest post from Chris Hennemeyer, a man who knows more about contemporary Africa than anyone else around. Chris has worked in international aid and development for the last few decades. He’s seen the beauty and the violence of the African subcontinent up close. Here is his account of  dealing with rebels in Liberia back in the 1990s. The follow up about Nigeria is here.

cavallyriver4The Cavally was a thick, rich cafe au lait color and impressively wide for a river I’d never before heard of. I was on the Ivorian side of the border, my shoes deep in the crumbling sand of the river bank, squinting across the broad brown water at Liberia. On our side women chatted as they washed clothes in the shallows, and men sat nearby repairing fishing nets, but on the opposite shore there was no movement, only a dense wall of green, old-growth forest; soaring silk cotton trees, raffia palms, and elaborate weaves of liana vines. It was just past noon and my damp shirt clung to me like a second skin. I loosened my tie, a pointless effort in the oppressive humidity.

In 1991, Liberia was barely a quarter the way through its “first” civil war. Tens of thousands of people, nearly all civilians, had been killed by marauding bands of bizarrely costumed criminals, and many times that number had fled their homes, either for the bush or for neighboring countries. But things would get much worse before they briefly got better. In the meantime, though, they were bad enough.

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Frank Sinatra In Die Hard

die-hardThe 1988 action picture Die Hard launched Bruce Willis into stardom and gave Alan Rickman his first foothold in the movie business. It’s an action-packed 2 hours and 11 minutes of gunplay and wisecracks as Willis takes on a gang of German terrorists holding an entire office block hostage. An incomparable modern classic according to some; a well-paced slice of 80’s bloodlust to others.

And it almost starred Frank Sinatra.

The producers asked the 73-year-old singer and actor to take the lead role that would go to Bruce Willis. They had no choice thanks to a decent bit of 60s neo-noir called The Detective.

The story began back in 1966 when a New Yorker who’d been a private eye and published a book that didn’t sell much decided to write a detective novel about a man on the verge of losing everything.

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