And there it was…
The ‘other’ world that wasn’t…
All our lives we’d been taught that Russians weren’t like ‘us’ – that they were a wholly different species of human; and now the evidence seemed to prove otherwise…
In the first place, I’d gone there because I didn’t believe a word of what I’d been told. I had been teaching myself the Russian language as a result of being a big fan of Dostoevsky and the Golden Age of Russian literature in general. What was more, I’d been planning on visiting the place regardless of western propaganda.
I’ve made my decision to go to Russia, but how? Despite Gorbachev and glasnost it is still part of the Soviet Union and they do not let just any old Dostoevskian stroll across their borders with nary a by-your-leave. My first thought was to maybe catch a coach to Warsaw and from there somehow or other hop on a boat with a passage up along the Volga and on to Moscow. Maybe they wouldn’t notice me, overlooking the presence of a stupid little Englishman whose only reasons for visiting their empire was because of some books he’d read and because he wasn’t supposed to be there at all. I could see myself either below deck holed up in a little lightlocked cabin or up above clutching the railings as the Russian Volga river banks glided by and the outskirts of Russian Volga towns slid into and out of view, first Astrakhan and Stalingrad, then Saratov, Kazan, Nozhny Novgorod and Ryazan. Maybe Yaroslavl and Tver. I kind of had visions of Arthur Gordon Pym meets those guys pulling the boat in that painting by Repin. You know the one – Burlaki na Volge. A mixed vision, you might say. – DOSTOEVSKY’S PLACE
Well, that wasn’t such a bad idea, and I would have been happy to follow it through. I think the main drawback was the notion of the dreary coachride through to Warsaw, a definite nnnnghhh. Other thoughts came to mind, until I settled on a two-week stay with a Russian family organised by the Quakers. Perfect, since it included a Russian language course as well.
Tver was where Dostoevsky set my favourite novel, ‘The Devils‘.
Spot on, in other words.
And so whereas I didn’t meet people with two heads, I did meet the person who was the most perfect partner I could have possibly met to live with for the rest of my life. Nor was she Russian. She was Irish – or at least her family were, like my mother’s. Except they were seriously Roman Catholic and my mother’s side were notionally Protestant. But we, at least, spoke the same language. Maybe two.
It was great because we had planned to have our honeymoon in Morocco, except the United States of America decided to declare war on Iraq and we were just about the only Westerners in their country. Plus, at the time of our arrival it was the last week of Ramadan, which we had not calculated upon.
‘Travelling south on the coaches special Ramadan music was flung from tinny little loudspeakers mounted inside the top luggage racks. At first its fiery rumbustious rhythms annoyed [Sam and Martine], but, after they had travelled some miles, they were able to enjoy it; somehow it began to harmonise with the passing countryside, with the rich green pastures, orange groves, sunshine, berobed figures and galumphing mules. – QUESTION
Following an invitation, we went back to Russia a year later…
One weekend morning in late August I turned the TV on as usual to get my fix of Russian language listening, only to find Chaikovsky being played continuously against a backdrop of classic Russian scenes, birch trees in the snow and so on. Fearing the worst, I phoned a friend, who told me there had been a coup: Gorbachev had been detained in his holiday dacha by the Black Sea and a group of politicians and generals had declared a pereverot, claiming that power was now in their hands. Very shaky hands they were, too. A night later and six men were seen in a TV broadcast, sitting behind a wooden desk, looking extremely nervous, while their main spokesman, Yanaev, could not help his hands from visibly trembling. He looked like a drunk with the DTs. They all did. That same night, as I returned from watching the broadcast in the friend’s flat, I noticed the Russian tricolour was waving above Tver city hall. A day or two later, Boris Yeltsin was seen waving his fist from the top of a tank in the Moscow streets, a shaken Gorbachev returned to the Kremlin, and the Soviet Union was all but finished. A neighbour sweetly and naively informed me that the shops would be full again within a fortnight.- LIFE IS A FEELING
In the aftermath, all the shops were emptied out and although we could have survived by utilising our contacts we felt guilty about that and decided to fill our car’s petrol tank with the help of the mayor from a nearby town, and headed back east through Smolensk and Minsk. At the border with Poland some aggro ensued as a result of our not having an exit visa, but a mixture of feigned ignorance and belligerence got us out safely enough. We opted to head south; however the Balkan War, also instigated by the US, prevented us from going down through the old Yugoslavia and we had to take a tortuous route across some ex-Soviet satellite states instead:
Ending up in Greece, where…
… after a winter in the Peloponnese town of Kalamata we were brought back to Blighty. And a move to the south-west of the British Isles.
You can’t actually travel further west than this part of the country and still be part of the UK, and so here we rested.
That night I lay awake in bed thinking to myself as the moonlight shone through the window curtains.
What on earth am I doing down here if I’m not prepared to work and support the family?
I came down here because –
Not just to avoid the traffic, surely?
Or the noise.
Or the pollution.
An article in the Observer reckoned there are more drugs being used in the countryside than the towns. So that wasn’t it – after all, I wasn’t selling them, and these days barely taking any, so there was no advantage in that fact for me.
It’s more expensive down here in some ways: petrol, food, alcohol.
Why are we here?
What is wrong with me? – LIFE IS A FEELING
Just as you raise kids, so they raise you – raise your levels of empathy, along with overt love-giving, innate patience, sympathetic outpourings and levels of energy. Which is a good thing. Almost Darwinian, it sorts out the good the bad and the ugly parents. So that the social and economic quagmire that was the nineties-following-on-from-the eighties damn near passed me by. Hallelujah! Even the Rolling Stones were on the lam. Iggy released what was his worst album up till then. As for the politics and economics…please! You gotta say the horrible and most objectionable neoliberal/neocon project was fully underway. And the reason why I was still working hard on QUESTION and brought A SORT OF SYMPHONY PIECE to conclusion (a young London agent wanted to take me on as an author with an exciting future, but her hard-bitten cynical boss brought this particular notion to a very quick end…. While we are at it; another similarly idealistic literary agent from that time was keen to take me on, but time spent in modern-day Israel followed by her desire-to-make-money led her to become as equally cynical…so that now a look at her list reveals a horribly ugly assortment of establishment writers. One last irony – QUESTION was completed two decades later in a Jerusalem/Al Quds hotel room as a bunch of noisy Jewish settlers were busy outside intimidating the local Arab population with whom we had at least made some acquaintance.)
And the art was hilarious – all those installation artists known as Young British Artists. Just look at their Establishment credentials – even the manner in which they presented their work. Hush. Reverence!
In fact, the main patron of these free-thinking rebels was the guy whose advertising agency had helped persuade the whole British public to go against their own best self-interests, to vote against the workers’ Labour Party, and promote the aforementioned neoliberal/neo-con project instead.
A person of such cynical proclivities that in a later national election campaign he portrayed the Labour leader as an evil snake.
To be fair, Blair did turn out to be something quite dangerous, demented and preposterous once he too joined in the American project known as the New World Order. But the Saatchi advertising firm employed by the Conservatives once again – failing with their scare tactics on this occasion – could not have been aware of this.
While the old liberal vanguard were equally sneering of the working class – pick up a Guardian newspaper and you were informed how to best invest your money and at the same time how to spend it on exotic holidays that nobody else could ever have thought of – thereby demonstrating your highly-evolved individualistic traits – or the best trendy restaurants to frequent in a decidedly non-swinging London.
Nothing – absolutely nothing – of any interest or value was missed by not participating in the non-cultural milieu or American-dominated political shenanigans of that period; so that living simply while raising a young family in a quiet southern England village or Devon hamlet was quite likely the most fruitful undertaking possible at the time.
And then this happened.