I must have spent close to four weeks, on and off, in Tirana this winter. It’s a bizarre city. Every now and then in a restaurant I’ll see black and white photos on the walls showing cobbled streets and Ottoman villas in the days before first Fascist and then Communist architects got their hands on the place. Hard to believe but it must have been picturesque. It isn’t now. But it does have a real, shambolic, charm – I like Tirana a lot, and am sad to be driving back to the UK, even if only for a few weeks.
During my stays here, I’ve generally slept at the Villa With Star, a small 1930s apartment hidden between the truly hideous tower blocks that are sprouting up willy-nilly across the city. It’s close to the old bazaar, or what remains of it, and plenty of good, cheap eateries (and five minutes’ walk from Skanderbeg Square). But one of the Villa’s big attractions is that it’s also home to Albaniantrip.com, who have a great collection of Communist memorabilia. Yesterday I entertained myself with an album of early 1980s New Albania magazines. There was so much good stuff that I had to create a Facebook gallery. I tried to limit myself to just 10 pages and spreads, but found it impossible. So instead I’ll post 10 a week, the first instalment of which you can see here.
Noteworthy articles include “A New Appearance for an Ancient City”, in which the writers wax lyrical on the destruction of old Durrës and its replacement by uniform blocks of flats. “The new buildings are constructed according to the standard designs provided by the Study and Design Institute of Town-panning [sic] and Architecture in Tirana,” it says, before mentioning that many buildings were built by “voluntary labour contributed by the working people”. How nice of them.
“The Distribution of Income in the Agricultural Cooperatives” is, I’m sure, fascinating, but I somehow couldn’t find the time to read it in full. The cover of Issue 3/1982 shows an ill-but-benevolent-looking Enver Hoxha, and includes a small article by Jashar Kemal (“A Turkish Writer”), who, apparently, left Albania Extremely Happy. He was particularly impressed by the fact that water could be brought to one place from another, many miles away – “a real miracle”. The Romans would have been astonished.
And all written in that stilted, dead, empty English favoured by Communist bureaucrats and Ivy League social science faculties. Very strange indeed.
When I’m back in London I’ll be delving into the private papers of Neil ‘Billy’ McLean at the Imperial War Museum, and also trying to get to the bottom of what happened to a small party of British soldiers who left the Mati region in April for evacuation to Italy, but only turned up on the coast in August. No one seems quite sure what beach they were extracted from or what happened to them in-between. The officers were Bulman, Smythe and Hands, with NCOs Brandrick, Clifton, Goodier and Smith. If anyone out there has any information, I’d love to hear from you.